In a comfortable nook in the lobby of the Jungle Theater is a wall of photographs, each carefully framed, picturing stage designs from past productions. There are the lonesome, neon-lit rooms from True West and Talk to Me Like the Rain, as well as the checker-floored and crustacean-bedecked office of Lobster Alice. Most of these sets were designed by Jungle artistic director Bain Boehlke, and they are magnificent. His pride in his designs is well placed, although the same cannot be said for the theater's collection of headshots of actors who have appeared in past productions. Unlike the aforementioned photographs, the headshots clutter one wall in a rather indecorous assemblage at the entryway, looking very much like an afterthought; in fact, a towering plant all but hides them.
I suspect the message this sends is accidental, as previous shows at the Jungle can hardly be accused of treasuring sets over performers. But peering through the potted fronds at the actor photos, one does get the rather queasy sense that in discussing their productions, Jungle staffers tend to begin with, "Gad, but that was a wonderful set!" and only later get around to talking about the relative merits of their cast. So when the Jungle mounts a three-character comedy such as Pavilion, which requires no set whatsoever (the play can be performed with nothing more than two benches), one's curiosity is necessarily piqued. No sets required? What shall they do?
Boehlke, ever the creative one, has gotten around the problem by designing a set that looks exactly like a cluttered stage, but with greater art. Several ladders stand stage left in intersecting, symmetrical triangles. Opposite them is a disarray of boxes and leftover sets, stacked against a desk, where actor Stephen D'Ambrose sits quietly eating Chinese food and listening to Terry Gross on public radio. Stage lights dangle onto the stage, too low to function properly, and eventually D'Ambrose notices and gestures offstage, where some unseen stagehand responds by raising the lights.
With D'Ambrose onstage, the Jungle does not need a set, even the ingenious non-set provided here. In fact, I am tempted to say that with D'Ambrose, they don't really need a play. He is a lanky, long-faced fellow with arching eyebrows, and seeing him push Chinese food through his pencil-thin line of a mouth is oddly entertaining, like watching Andy Warhol's early experimental films that showed people sleeping for seven hours. In fact, when D'Ambrose finally speaks, it is something of a disappointment. He wends his way through a long, poetic monologue tracking the history of time from its formless beginnings until the moment of the start of the play, and his language is a bit purple: "The air is blood thick with insect songs," he says, producing groans, (at least from one reviewer). Watching the man eat was spare and meditative, but listening to him recite this dialogue is arduous.
Fortunately, it turns out that this character is intended to be a bit overbearing. Craig Wright's play tells the story of a high school reunion that brings together two estranged lovers (Patrick Coyle and Amy McDonald, both offering sweet, winning performances), and D'Ambrose narrates the story, as well as playing every other character at the affair. Each scene is structured something like a two-person vaudeville routine, with D'Ambrose depicting an alarming series of comic sidekicks to Coyle and McDonald's straight men. With a mimed cigarette, D'Ambrose becomes a bitter, chain-smoking female confidant to McDonald, advising her against forgiveness. Then, with a goofy grin and suddenly slumped shoulders, D'Ambrose becomes a suicide hotline councilor begging Coyle's psychiatrist for professional advice. Indeed, through deft staging, one scene has D'Ambrose as a police chief hunting down D'Ambrose as a pot-smoking mayor, seeking revenge for an affair the mayor has had with the police chief's wife, also played by D'Ambrose. At this point, we lose interest in Chinese food.
Amusing though it might be, all this would just be a diverting stunt if the story didn't matter, and it is easy for a story about past lovers coming to terms with each other not to matter. But playwright Craig Wright has a real sense of the small tragedies that can haunt people's lives, and is canny enough to know that sometimes these tragedies cannot be repaired. The Pavilion plays like light comedy, but details profound experiences of grief and betrayal, which makes it surprisingly moving and unusually compelling. Imagine what it could have been with a set...
Outward Spiral's The Big Hoover has an enormous set, in theory: the Hoover Dam. The theater company has not bothered to build the monumental physical structure on the tiny stage at the Hennepin Center for the Arts--cowards! Instead, the dam is represented by a few abstract metal structures, but it looms large in the minds of the play's characters. Local playwright Antay S. Bilgutay opens his story by having a long relationship come to a sudden end when one lover (Marlin L. Rothe) seizes his bags and declares that he is leaving--for the dam. The jilted partner (John Watkins) howls his misfortune: "Why do men always leave me for architectural wonders?" His two previous boyfriends, we learn, abandoned him for the Empire State Building.
The play that follows is glib and very funny, involving an ill-considered scheme to run off into the woods and start a new race, as well as an even more foolish plot to kidnap Cher. Along the way there is a completely extraneous subplot about a musical biography of Maud and Golden Girls star Bea Arthur, and since this is a play about unlikely heartbreaks, impossible schemes, and unwatchable musical theater, it skirts even closer to not mattering than The Pavilion. In fact, The Big Hoover only matters as much as its audience recognizes itself in the nonsense that happens onstage. Some will recognize nothing, and the play will be an empty series of irrational punch lines.
So much for them; my experience was different. In one scene, John Watkins finds himself terrified in a bar when a stranger hits on him, and responds with a babbling, stream-of-consciousness discussion of the career of Ally Sheedy. In this frightened, ridiculous act, I saw myself, and suddenly the play wasn't quite so glib and empty.