Exile on Lake Street

Bearded puppets are great tippers: A scene from 'Lake Street Excavations'
Bruce Silcox

Lake Street is well into its multimillion-dollar process of being ripped to hell and rebuilt. This summer, attempts at utilizing it for travel are for those with Zen patience or a deep streak of masochism, and the path of destruction runs right to the doorstep of Heart of the Beast's theater on the corner of 15th Avenue. To commemorate the change, the theater has put together this long and sometimes puzzling show that aims to locate the metaphoric heart of the street and the city.

The production is composed of eight vignettes. Upon entering the theater, audience members are given different-color passports, which break the crowd into smaller groups that see the different mini-shows, staged at various locations along Lake Street. This creates a nice sense of uncertainty and possibility--which is only intermittently cashed in on over the course of the three hours that follow.

Matters start out with a puppet show at the main theater that takes us from prehistory (a lot of animals lived here, apparently) through Native American days and up to the formation of the ever-changing urban jungle. Toy piano and bongos accompany a free-associational narration; things are off to a nice start. Then it's time to hit the road.

It is no small irony to be led, as part of a tour group, down a street some of our suburban acquaintances might go to great lengths to avoid. We know, of course, that the Lake and Bloomington area is one of the most vital, diverse, and downright interesting parts of town. To some, though, it has the surreality of a stage set, and in my group people were crossing busy streets as though they were in the safety of a theater seat. I wanted to scream, "Come on! Haul ass! Can't you see that rusty Explorer bearing down on us?"

The stage shows, in local restaurants and shops, seem under-rehearsed and sketchy in thought and execution. That being said, ripping with a critic's dagger would be inappropriate to an endeavor that is trying to promote community and that is relentlessly positive and good-natured. A little tableau behind La Poblanita restaurant, for example, takes off on a metaphorical tangent about water that seems fairly pointless--until the youthful players offer your parched throat a glass of fresh water and a crack at some tortilla chips.

At the Taleeh Grocery, poet Roy McBride does a cool riff on Lake Street ("It's hardcore, it's sleazy, it's weird"). Then it's off to the Northland Poster collective, where Ramon Cordes and Qamar Sadik-Saud make Commie-luvin' boss-man baiting seem like a very wholesome and constructive youth activity (which, to be clear, in my book it is).

Another nice moment comes at the ruins of the Gustavus Adolphus building, which partially burned last year and is used to present an installation on the concept of loss. A sad banjo plunks away, Soozin Hirschmugl plays a specter on stilts, and people are invited to make symbolic ribbons of farewell to someone or something they lost. It's nice and to the point, and employs a deeper emotional resonance than any of the other material in the evening. Its sad beauty lays bare the flaws in much of the balance of the show.

The politics are thick. The tour guides read out head-scratchers like "Imagine Lake Street with no cars." At one point we find ourselves at the Powderhorn Phillips Wellness Center, which seems like a very worthy organization, but being led through its nondescript space filled me with profound bewilderment--I'm spending three hours of my life on this show, and I'm touring an office?

The night ends with food and live music at Celebration Hall, next to where things started. You try to get all irritated at a show, then they offer to feed you and invite you to hang out. It's that kind of night. It's too long, and the high points are too few. Yet everyone is so nice along the way, and as McBride says, it takes you "from Mazatlán to Mogadishu." Consider this a very conditional recommendation. Wear comfortable shoes if you go, and for God's sake, don't linger in the crosswalks.

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