Peter Peter Pumpkin Theater
Gasp--The Tarkovsky Project
KNOCK BACK THE whiskey. Prepare for the annual saliva exchange. Kick the Great Yid and collect a gift. It's Christide season in the American premiere of Robert Shearman's Easy Laughter, and everyone gets to celebrate another dystopic year in a fascist winter wunderland. A single family inhabits a stage space set off by police tape, progressing from a comic compulsiveness in act one to wracked instability by play's end. Fearing their social obsolescence and implied extermination, they guard against all deviance by speaking in structured code. They repeat the same phrases 50 times, a hundred times: sorry most kindly, thank you very much indeed, Christ in his infinite compassion. As such, the plot here is fairly negligible; about 15 minutes of raw material are recycled again and again as the systems of sublimated alienation and ritualized violence approach creepy clarity. Recalling both a more menacing take on Edward Albee's American Dream and a less explicit analog to A Clockwork Orange, the production is well acted and boldly conceived.
The play's secondary purpose, as implied in its title, is to challenge the audience's passive enjoyment of the morally sordid. Here it is less successful. We are to find horror in our amusement while discovering just how far we will go: The eugenic family hierarchy? The Christide Yid-kicking? The seasonal incest? If you think that sounds like a cop-out, you're right. Shearman is trying to foist off his own harrowing (and artistically acute) vision on an audience that--let's not forget --has paid to be entertained; these people aren't showing up uninvited at an emergency room for a few chuckles. The logic here recalls the junior nihilist who accosts his young followers by announcing, "Everything I say is a lie; now what do you think about that?" Well, not much, really.
However regrettable this audience manipulation scheme may be, there is something still more unfortunate at work--the abominable name of this brand-new company. In practice, Peter Peter Pumpkin Theater abbreviates to P3T, making them sound like one of the lesser droids in Star Wars; I still don't like it. Fortunately, most everything else about Easy Laughter makes this an auspicious debut. These young Pumpkinheads have arrived.
Not to be outdone in the Ungainly Names Department is the Hidden Theatre, which continues its sophomore season with this pretentious mouthful: Gasp--The Tarkovsky Project. Back in grad school, the Hidden Theatre three (Annelise Christ, Jay Dysart, and Brian Baumgartner) created conceptual études inspired by the writings of Andrei Tarkovsky, the Soviet filmmaker whose mindblowing sci-fi masterpiece Solaris makes 2001: A Space Odyssey look like Sesame Street. Incorporating music, movement, and sometimes speech, each scene of Gasp gravitates around a single theme or idea. A few resolve in a punchline; others arbitrarily expire, as if at the inaudible prompting of an offstage egg timer. Let's call it sketch comedy without the comedy; music videos without the video. Like the former, they sometimes flounder well after their dramatic apex; like the latter, they sometimes don't have much to say.
But then just what does a "Tarkovsky" look like? In one, Christ tentatively slaps Baumgartner across the face a few dozen times until he pulls away. In another, Dysart and Christ act out a sexual scenario from four perspectives. The definitive skit, though, is the very first, in which the actors seat themselves in a row facing the audience. When the lights come up they illuminate the audience; it is the actors who rattle their programs and fidget restlessly. Like the Pumpkinheads, Christ, Dysart & Baumgartner (a fledgling personal injury firm?) seem to believe that the future of the stage depends on imprecating the audience for its voyeurism. For what it's worth, I saw the same who's-watching-whom gag played out on a recent episode of The John Laroquette Show with guest star Ann Magnuson. As with the paradoxes of the young philosopher-of-negation, these concepts are less profound than their creators may think.
Still, despite the lack of sets and script, there is nothing half-assed nor half-hearted about Gasp. One must admire the bravery involved in this endeavor if nothing else. And in more than a few moments, the company's artistic risks realize capital returns. In the closing scene, Baumgartner immerses his head in a giant bucket of water--lowered by pulley, deus ex machina--and surfaces apple-in-mouth. Next, Dysart takes the plunge, coming up fruitless and soaked, again and again. Until he leaves his head in almost a minute and is pulled out, face set in a dripping, Munch-ian mask, as if having glimpsed in that bucket a watery void better left unseen. That the Hidden Theatre can only intermittently communicate that visual intensity does not make Gasp a failure; having come this far, they might as well stick their heads back in the bucket and try again. CP
Easy Laughter runs through February 17 at SpaceSpace; call 330-3990 for tickets and information. Gasp--The Tarkovsky Project runs through February 25 at the Hennepin Center for the Arts; call 824-5945 for further information.
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