Ministry of Cultural Warfare: Soldiers For Greatness

How do they get them little people in those pictures? Prodigious comic talents Nathan Surprernant and Leigha Horton
Courtesy of Ministry of Cultural Warfare

Bridget O'Connell. If the name fails to toll the cheery bell of recognition, you are not alone. Hers is not a celebrated name in these parts. Our downtown bears no public statue of her tossing her tam-o'-shanter in the air; there are no parks, airports, or frontage roads christened in her honor. She may even seem like a bit player in our present story, but it is she who planted a mustard seed in the Twin Cities' theatrical garden that has miraculously blossomed into a towering redwood.

In 1998, Matthew Foster was an aimless college student in Denver, Colorado. In the winter of that year, he received a call from O'Connell, a friend from his high school days in Pierre, South Dakota. "She was graduating from the U of M with a degree in theater, emphasis on directing," recalls the ruggedly handsome Foster at Café Barbette in uptown Minneapolis, where he orders a sandwich in what sounds like French or some other exotic language. "And she needed to direct a show and had no money to pay any royalties. And so she said: 'I've always liked your writing, will you write me a play?' My royalty was that she had to fly me up here."

Ladies and gentlemen--especially those who have attributed Foster's Minneapolis move to providence--let us take a moment to thank Bridget O'Connell. Foster arrived at Hubert H. Humphrey with a script called Dante's Self-Cleaning Oven, which O'Connell directed at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in 1998. Foster doesn't speak highly of this initial dramaturgical foray, and the only review I could uncover was from an obscure Dante-studies journal, which called the work "really sucky" in a three-word pan (first word: "really").

But Foster, who had seen just two plays prior to writing one of his own, had lighted upon a new passion. "I got really addicted to it," he says, a plausible statement considering that a cigarette habit is his only visible vice. "It was such a thrill to see people performing works that I had written and having people laugh. So I went to a lot of theater over the next two years, and kind of learned by observing."

This period of independent study led Foster to "bust a move" in earnest. He founded Ministry of Cultural Warfare with Trevor Nelson, who has since left town. The company made its debut at the 2000 Minnesota Fringe Festival with The Last Cherry Pit, which was billed as an "existentialist comedy inspired by the life and works of Cold War-era Hungarian author István Örkény." (Sparse attendance for the show was chalked up to a simultaneous meeting of the Write On Hungary! social club in Gary, Indiana, which split the play's natural ethnic constituency.)

"We ended up casting Leigha [Horton] and Matt Kessen," says Foster, "and about a week or so before we opened we decided that we wanted to do more with these people." Like Stein coming across Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Hemingway in Paris, the group expanded into the brilliant core quintet that proved victorious in the above-described mini-golf match. A few regularly called-on actors, including muscled sex symbol Nathan Surprenant, are de facto company members; they reflect the luminous artistry of Foster et al. as the pale winter moon glows in the warm rays of our sun.

The face of the company is arguably that of sable-haired Horton, a killer-diller actor who has starred in all eight Ministry productions, enveloping audiences in her coruscating genius like a thin white paper pouch with which one might enclose a missive or utility bill. Through her offstage duties as producer and publicist, Horton is grease gun to the Ministry's bearings, if an indelicate term such as "grease gun" could ever be used to describe such a breathtaking beauty.

The company's Fringe shows have steadily grown in popularity. After a modest debut, attendance increased considerably with 2001's Fellini-inspired collage Into the Acid Fountain. Slaughter House Warming, a kind of My Kegger with Andre that may prove to be the definitive treatise on Generation Y culture clashes, was the 10th most popular show of last year's Fringe, topping such competition as George Bush's Nuts. Exposure from the festival has enabled MoCW to offer an informal season, which includes a Fringe show and two others, presented at see-and-be-seen venues such as the Bryant-Lake Bowl and Intermedia Arts. Last February, Horton starred in the one-woman show The Unbearable Lightness of Being American, which showed off the actor's Streep-like versatility as well as the group's growing prowess with snarky video interludes.

This year's Fringe offering, Industrials, is one of MoCW's rare productions of non-original work (previously, it has tackled playwrights Vaclav Havel and David Ives). This source material, however, has probably never been brought to the stage before. The show is a dramatic staging of five instructional films from the 1950s, taken from the archives of filmmaker and cultural historian Rick Prelinger. The scripts have been truncated but not otherwise amended. Characterized by wooden acting and now-comic didactics, these "industrial" shorts were often shown in schools and, less commonly, in the workplace. "The Bright Young Newcomer," for instance, depicts a filing donnybrook between two office "girls": a plucky go-getter and a veteran employee who mulishly resists "new ideas." The teen-dating meditation "Going Steady?" is most amusing for its deliberate irresolution. Through gender changes, choreography, and general tomfoolery, MoCW is wreaking havoc on the original intent of the films.

The '50s originals are fascinating documents of a period remembered for its zealous promotion of propriety and conformity. That makes them a good target for the terminally contrary Foster. "I have deep mistrust of groupthink whether it comes from the left or from the right. I'm just as uncomfortable at rodeos as I am at Gay Pride," says Foster, who is gay. (The obvious compromise: gay rodeos.) Foster, whose T-shirt says "Fuck Off" in rainbow lettering, is amused by Ministry's success in the Fringe's queer-content category. "We've had the number-one queer-content show for two years running. It's really funny because I have nothing good to say about gay people as a group. Gay people don't really give a shit about gay people, they just want it to be straight women singing to them." (The obvious follow-up question: "Do you have anything good to say about straight people as a group?" Answer: "No.")

For future MoCW projects, Foster doesn't rule anything out: musicals, serious drama, multimedia experimentation. (I would recommend a golfumentary.) "If it's fucked-up enough, we'll do it," he explains, but later adds that such an aesthetic may not bring financial security. "I don't really think that I could write the kind of stuff I write and do it as a career unless I expatriate," he says, mentioning a possible move to Canada.

If our emphasis on Mr. Foster overstates his role, let me stress that the Ministry of Cultural Warfare is by no means a one-man affair, as the Ryder Cup effort at Richfield's Lilliputian links demonstrated. It's hard, though, to picture the Ministry without Foster, just as it is painful to envision our metropolis without the Ministry. If Foster ever does flee to Canada--like some unkempt draft-dodging shrimp (that's one for you, Mr. Hope)--may he at least have the decency to let us carry him there on a sedan.

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