As is their habit on the opening night of a play, the staff of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune filled the theater's lobby with trinkets and performers that evoked their play. This being Kevin Kling's meditation on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the theme was size and exoticism. Tiny plastic pigs, surfers, and infants from the bins of Sister Fun lay scattered across tables, along with miniature candies and one enormous Nut Roll donated to the theater by Pearson Candy of St. Paul. Audience members sipped Glimigrim wine from the Garretson Wine Company (named for the very same sweet wine that Gulliver had drunk, inspiring him to micturate on a burning castle) as they looked at themselves in funhouse mirrors or watched a pair of bangled and kohl-eyed belly dancers.
Many gathered around a grinning, bespectacled elderly man near the theater's entrance, perhaps attracted by the sounds of crackling electricity. Stretched out before the man was an ancient, crudely made model of electrical power lines, hooked to a small tabletop generator and crowned by a pair of battered toy songbirds. The man wore an Xcel Energy T-shirt and a pair of heavy gloves made of rubber wrapped in leather. He used these unwieldy gloves to push blackened action figures toward the miniature power lines, whereupon electricity would surge through them and the air would fill with the sickly toxic odor of burning plastic.
"This is very entertaining," I whispered to a Jeune Lune marketing associate, "but what does it have to do with Gulliver?"
"Nothing," she whispered back. "This display is here because Dominique thinks it's hysterical."
Indeed, at the elbow of the bespectacled elderly man stood Jeune Lune artistic director Dominique Serrand, his pointed features pulled back into a jackal grin . "Make the little man catch on fire," he demanded in his heavy Parisian accent. The elderly man nodded, pressed an action figure toward a live wire, and both watched as blue electric arcs burst through the air and the plastic man began to burn.
This is the first time playwright Kevin Kling has worked with the Jeune Lune since its celebrated production of his The 7 Dwarves in 1988, and he is unequivocally delighted to be back, at least in part because the theater can be so indulgent. Two days before opening, looking shaggy and bedraggled in the then-empty lobby of the Jeune Lune, he explained that "the word no does not exist in a clown's vocabulary. So you don't make a suggestion to this company unless you are ready to see them try it."
Like what? "Water," Kling sighed. "There's a lot of water in this production."
There are also two Gullivers, played as a young man by Nathan Keepers and an older man by Steven Epp (the former wearing a partly prosthetic nose to make him resemble the latter; and the latter speaking with a halting, high-pitch voice meant to recall his younger half). This is not the Gulliver you remember, and you probably don't remember Gulliver anyway: Everyone knows Lilliput, the land of men who are six inches tall, but who remembers the land of the giant Brobdingnanians? Who remembers Laputa, the city in the sky? How about the apelike Yahoos or the noble race of horses called the Houyhnhnms? And even if you did remember this, it wouldn't be much help: In Kling's version of the story, Lilliput consists of a massive baby (a drooling, monstrous Brian Baumgartner) being fed and eventually attacked by a group of chattering, big-eared androgynes wielding cranes, pulleys, and remote-controlled miniature tanks. The results are such that they demand pairings of oddly matched words: It is appallingly funny; it is disquietingly hilarious.
But though the play may stray from Swift (as Gulliver himself did: Swift once noted that he could always send Gulliver on journeys, the trouble was getting him back--a sentiment repeated in this play), but this is still Gulliver, and he still travels. These journeys are represented by water, and, as Kling intimated, water is abundant. Cast members fling it atop one other from buckets, it pours down from the ceiling like rain, the two Gullivers bathe in it, sink in it, nearly drown in it, only to be pulled out, gasping and flailing, by an oversize, cursing nurse (Brian Baumgartner again, terrifying again).
This is a theater that repeatedly quotes Napoleon's "Imagination rules the world," and this production gives that imagination free rein. It is a world where a young Jonathan Swift (played with a movie-Irish brogue and a ribald grin by Luvern Seifert) can press his hand into his pocket only to have it come out from the handbag of a nearby German critic and poke her with a pencil. Which is to say that on this stage, Swift's reach always extends well beyond his grasp. Sousaphones spontaneously arise from beneath the stage to play marches, tiny hands emerge from a woman's décolletage in groping mode, and the cast unexpectedly bursts into songs warning of the lethal possibilities of flying fruit.
And as Gulliver constantly escapes Swift in this production, the play's imagination often escapes logic. "It was a bitch to put up," Serrand confessed at the end of opening night, and this production showed a play that still hadn't jelled, particularly in its second act.
As might be expected from a work that received stacks of revisions every day, filling Kling's backpack, the production still has some jarring shifts in tone. Serrand chose to push back the play's opening by two days, radically revising it during the preview process. As of opening night, imagination, like water, was abundant, but the exact intentions remained a bit flooded by the spectacle.
For now, Gulliver: A Swift Journey (as the play is called) has yet to reveal a sure destination. But the cast will continue to rehearse the show, Kling will continue to truck backpacks filled with revisions to the theater, and Serrand will continue to refine his vision of the play. At the end of its run this may be an entirely different journey altogether, but one, I am certain, that will remain abominably entertaining.