It's appropriate that Kevin Kling's latest collaboration with Open Eye Figure Theatre opens at the tail end of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Before settling in with an annual August show at Open Eye, Kling was a regular at the Fringe, crafting unique pieces that merged his love of storytelling with music and other influences.
Joice Rejoice is very much like those pieces, loosely connecting Kling's stories—here taking a biblical turn—with the talents of several other artists. And like the rest of Kling's body of work, the piece is at turns funny, touching, and insightful as it delves deep into the heart of the spirit, faith, and doubt.
The string of stories, songs, and Punch and Judy puppet shows are all in honor of the return of Lazarus, who has spent four days in the underworld before Jesus came down and plucked him from death and brought him back to life. The resonance with Kling's life—it's the 10th anniversary of a devastating motorcycle accident that left the performer on the edge between life and death—is hard to miss, to the point that he accidentally referred to himself as "Kevin" instead of "Lazarus" at one point in the show.
The whole evening is presented as a big party for Lazarus's return from beyond, with a distinct Minnesota twist. Beyond the banner welcoming him back (complete with smiley faces), there is a potluck dinner staying warm in crockpots along the back wall. The welcoming warmth extends to the whole company, who slowly arrive onstage at the beginning, setting up the last touches before playing a song to welcome Lazarus home.
Michael Sommers's Punch and Judy segments take on an appropriately biblical tone, with the Punch character violating all 10 of the commandments and killing a string of folks along the way, starting with his own baby and moving along to most of the characters we see.
Sara Richardson plays Mary Magdalene, Lazarus's sister, who entertains by taking on the roles of famous women from the Bible. Helping all of this is Jacqueline Ultan and Eric Jensen, who provide the music that runs through most of the show.
While the company created the production together, this is still clearly a Kevin Kling show, and his string of stories about Lazarus and his journey to death and back form the spine of the evening. Kling is a master storyteller, holding the audience in the palm of his hand as he describes simple moments and others loaded with the ambiguity of the spirit. Lazarus's journey is his own, down to leaving his right arm below when Jesus comes and takes him back to earth (Kling's own right arm was injured in the crash and lies limp at his side).
In the final story, Lazarus/Kling looks ahead from the moment, seeing Jesus' fate after performing the miracle, seeing the arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He then imagines a resurrection similar to, but also completely unlike, his own. The journey's end, and a reaffirmation of faith, is as compelling as any sermon I've ever heard.