International Falls combines laughs and pain

Thomas and Sherry Jo Ward get intimate in International Falls
courtesy of Thomas Ward

A few minutes into International Falls last Saturday night, a youngish couple quietly moved their way to the exit of a packed Bryant-Lake Bowl. About midway through, another couple joined them. Like the standup comedy that forms the show's foundation, International Falls isn't for everyone. It's foul-mouthed, profane, and extremely honest, especially about sex and love. Hell, the first time we see both of the show's characters, one is giving the other a hand job.

Those who stuck with the show were rewarded with a piercing examination of what it means to be funny and the toll everyday life takes on all of us.

Playwright Thomas Ward — he also stars as standup comedian Tim — spent a couple of years on the road as a comic, playing in dives across the country before deciding the career wasn't for him. In contrast, Tim has spent 16 years on the road, away from his home and family, and finds plenty of metaphorical resonance in gigging at the edge of the world in International Falls.

Ward's play alternates scenes of Tim's standup act with those in his Holiday Inn hotel room. He's dressed the same for both — in boxers and a tank-top shirt — showing us how little space there is between his two worlds (and making scene shifts easier).

In the room with him is Dee (played by Ward's wife, Sherry Jo), the hotel clerk who checked him in (he doesn't remember her doing that) and has aspirations of being a comic herself. Both are married and both are about to step out on their spouses in this generic room. That doesn't mean there isn't going to be talk, before and after the act. Ward's script gives them plenty to say, about themselves and the nature of comedy. Tim may be burned out beyond belief, but he knows the game extremely well — so well, in fact, that he can no longer truly enjoy comedy. He knows the rules far too well to be able to sit back and enjoy it.

Then again, that's a pretty common experience for a creative type. Often, the initial thrill of what brings you to the game gets lost as you learn more about the craft. Usually, a person finds a deeper level and dives into that. Not Tim. He's reached his level and professes to be "too lazy" to create anything new, even when the material — a string of fat jokes, for example — hurts to say every show.

Tim is having a crisis of the soul, but Dee is having a crisis of the heart. She's been with her husband for two decades, they have three children, and things are about to break down at home. She is in the hotel room to pick Tim's brain, certainly, but she is also there because her life has suddenly turned upside down.

The actors showcase plenty of chemistry, keeping their emotions tightly wound for most of the show. As they spend a boozy couple of hours together, the inhibitions break down and they finally let us inside. Comedy is about pain, and both of these people have an awful lot. They never let us forget that, even when they're being funny.

Jungle Theater founder (and northern Minnesota native) Bain Boehlke directs the production, and you can feel his influence throughout. The show's two-character setup and bedroom setting brings to mind an old Boehlke favorite, Fool for Love. Like that show, International Falls is about peeling back layers to get to the core of these characters.

Boehlke's instinct-first approach is perfect for the play, allowing the actors to touch the inner, often unhappy, hearts of Tim and Dee with a minimum of melodramatic fuss. The moments where they explode into emotion are that much more powerful — and leave a stronger impression than 90 minutes of sound and fury.

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