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Learning not to hate interactive theater through Flanagan's Wake

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Prior to Saturday night, the only "interactive theater" productions I'd ever attended were the avant-garde kind of shows where the Romanian Revolution is simulated in an empty building, or where Crime and Punishment plays out in an art gallery's basement. Stuff like Tony & Tina's Wedding I wouldn't go near. That kind of show, I imagined, would be excruciating: full of cheesy jokes and pushy performers.

When the announcement of Flanagan's Wake ("the hilarious interactive Irish wake") hit my inbox, though, I rethought my resistance. The cast list includes talented performers like Jane Froiland (who plays a batty character named Kathleen), with l'etoile magazine managing editor Todd O'Dowd playing the mother of the deceased. It's never too early to get in the mood for St. Patrick's Day — I'm one-sixteenth Irish, after all — so I decided to go check it out.

The show is being presented by the Actors Theater of Minnesota at the Camp Cabaret, a venue that was new to me. Part of Camp Bar in Lowertown, it has an informal vibe akin to the Bryant-Lake Bowl theater; but as opposed to that snug space, the Camp Cabaret is sprawling and funky. Decorative chains hang down one wall, corrugated metal lines another, and there's a bar illuminated by glass-box chandeliers. Seating is clumped in various configurations throughout the cabaret, giving the performers plenty of room to roam, and the sticky floor under my seat brought me right back to the good old days of the Roseville 4.

Like every other man in attendance, I was given a nametag that featured my name followed by "Patrick." So I became "Jay Patrick." "Mary" prefaced the name of every woman, meaning that my girlfriend became "Mary Dana."

As the Clancy Brothers belted "Beer, Beer, Beer" on the overhead speakers, the cast members (readily identifiable by their traditional Irish garb and by the mics Scotch-taped to their beards) wandered the cabaret chatting with the audience as we settled into our seats. "That's a pretty light Guinness you have there," one mourner said, eyeing my cup of Furious.

Tim Dybevik, in character as the mayor of our fictional Irish town, stopped by our table to console us. "You went to school with Flanagan, didn't you?" he asked. "You were a classmate, with Mary Catherine." He indicated a woman, who I'd never seen before, sitting down the row.

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"Yes," I admitted. "I don't like to talk about it, though. Mary Catherine's, you know... an ex." I wagged my eyebrows, and the mayor chuckled as he walked away. I turned to Mary Dana. "I think I'm getting into this," I said.

"Yeah," she replied. "I noticed."

Accompanist Jon Pumper, sitting at an electronic keyboard just offstage, struck up a lilting melody as the lights went down and the cast took the stage, lining up in front of the closed casket where Flanagan supposedly lay in permanent repose. Father Fitzgerald (Matt Tatone) presided, flask in hand; at the bar, he'd complained to me about all the student debt he'd been left with after graduating from seminary. ("The church is a very greedy institution," he confided, and when I commended him on his frankness, he shrugged. "I like to shoot the shite.")

Several of Flanagan's friends and relatives presented themselves, with the mourners-in-chief being Mother Flanagan (O'Dowd was rolled in on a wheelchair, screaming Irish-sounding gibberish and trying to steal everyone's drinks) and Flanagan's fiancée Fiona (Bailey Murphy), who promptly humped the coffin.

I looked around to see who else was at the wake. To my left, an older couple were holding hands and struggling to contain their laughter. From the upper-tier seating, a young couple was heckling the onstage mourners. Three middle-aged women in the front row were having a ladies' night out, all drinking Coronas. In front of me, what looked to be a father-son duo in matching maroon-and-gold hoodies were sipping what seemed to be lemonades. Onstage, all the performers were slamming pints of what looked like amber-tinted water. A server came over to ask Mary Dana and me if we wanted another round, and we said absolutely. Originally created by improv vet Jack Bronis in Chicago in 1994, Flanagan's Wake unfolds as a series of sketches where the performers take cues from the audience as they share increasingly absurd stories about the life and death of their beloved Flanagan. When we were asked to mention how Flanagan died, someone on the upper deck yelled, "Ass cookies!" The cast promptly abbreviated that to "cookies," and later stories turned the cookies into "car keys" (with a Brooklyn accent) and "tchotchkes."

Remembering that I went way back with Flanagan, one of the mourners bade me stand up and take the spotlight; he reminisced about how, when Flanagan and I were but wee boys, I used to run around naked with my tiny little peen flapping around. "Some things never change, do they, Jay Patrick?" Not one of the night's big laugh lines.

I did laugh at Flanagan's Wake, though — and most people in the audience laughed even more. Several audience members were pulled up for an improvised Irish step dance (cue the spinning green lights), and when someone mentioned a leopard, a lady sitting at a table that had worked its way through a bucket of Mich Goldens threw her leopard-print coat onstage.

The indefatigable cast kept the energy rising throughout the night. I admired their tenacity, and only the hip-hop interlude was as awkward as I'd feared the whole show would be. The cast handled the hecklers well, though unfortunately the performers didn't shut down a wince-worthy audience line about the "Chin Dong Swinger's Club."

The wake went by quickly, and in under two hours — including a 15-minute intermission "so that you may visit the bar!" — the night had come to its bittersweet end with a joyous singalong and a surprise plot twist. (St. Patrick forfend I should spoil it for you.) At the end, we were all wished a fond goodnight, and reminded to drive carefully.