Billy Mullaney wants you to know that his recreation of episode 1718 of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, "Be Yourself, That's the Best,” is not meant as some kind of ironic, hipster ransacking of a beloved childhood show. Instead, it’s a straight-on interpretation, complete with trolley, the Neighborhood of Make Believe, and a live fish onstage.
“Mr. Rogers is an anachronism. It is simultaneously very conservative and also super radical in an age of irony and cynicism and the like. Whenever I have the show, the audience expects to see a punchline. When it isn’t coming, that is very telling of what we expect,” Mullaney says.
The show makes up half of a two-part program this weekend at Open Eye Figure Theatre, joined by Seattle artist Erin Pike’s That’sWhatSheSaid.
Both pieces were part of Mullaney’s Uncreativity Festival, which featured theatrical works based on found texts.
“When you are playing Mr. Rogers, you are speaking directly to the audience and you are 100 percent honest all of the time,” Mullaney says. “There is no character. That is the number-one challenge. I have to self monitor. Sometimes I slip into an impersonation. It can feel wrong to say the words at the pace he does. You really have to mean it and be honest.”
Mullaney watched numerous episodes of the program before arriving on 1718. It ticked off several important boxes.
“I wanted one where he said, ‘You are special.’ I also didn’t want to build too much of the Neighborhood of Make Believe. And it is an episode where he visits someone, instead of showing a video about how crayons or balloons are made,” he says.
Mr. Rogers visited a string quartet. As it happens, Mullaney has a connection with the Lux String Quartet, so they will join him onstage for the show, along with pianist Eric Mayson and various puppeteers.
The make-believe segment is centered on the castle and also features a few of the characters. That made the build easier, but still not straightforward. “No one makes those kind of puppets anymore, and Fred Rogers didn’t license his characters. There are no replicas of the characters or die-cast trolleys," Mullaney says.
Throughout the production, Mullaney is interested in providing the vibe of Mr. Rogers, if not an exact recreation. Instead of a full fish tank, he’ll have a single fish in a bowl. The puppets are made of wood. There is a traffic light that will blink on and off.
“My job is not about accuracy, but to deliver it with the honesty he gave it. All of the drama happens with the audience. They see this figure saying these things that we feel we can’t say without making a corny joke,” he says.
Pike’s That’sWhatSheSaid is a very different take on found material. The Seattle-based artist collects women’s dialogue from the top 10 most-produced plays in the United States from 2014 and then remixes them into her piece. It’s a look inside how women are portrayed on American stages.
“She’s showing the extent to which women are caricatures in modern drama through the lines they say, the stage directions, and the character descriptions. I think it is really beautiful,” Mullaney says.
And what’s up with Mullaney and Mr. Rogers past this weekend?
“I’m planning to keep the castle and the props. I have the cardigan for life. I am interested in other episodes and how this will play in other places. I feel I have hit this center of a nexus of several things I am preoccupied with, and I am going to stick with Mr. Rogers for a while," he says.
IF YOU GO:
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and That’sWhatSheSaid
7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Open Eye Figure Theatre
506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis
$10 for single show; $15 for both
For tickets and more information, call 612-599-5649 or visit online