Moving Company revives a relevant -- if middling -- 'Liberty'

Dominique Serrand

Dominique Serrand

Liberty Falls is a peculiar place. It’s located in red America, but everyone there seems perfectly progressive except for a woman who’s literally 107 years old. Its residents are often dumb as stumps, yet they also demonstrate facility with several standards of the operatic repertoire. We observe that somebody rigged their ballot box, but we never learn who.

The Moving Company premiered this sprawling farce in 2015, in reaction to the paranoid claptrap that was already polluting the presidential campaign. Liberty Falls, 54321 is now at the Lab Theater in a return engagement, since the paranoid claptrap is clearly going to continue.

The show is set in a fictional Wisconsin town where the residents are about to fete their most senior citizen, Liberty Rose (Steven Epp). She expires before the ceremony can begin, though, compelling a citizen’s brigade to animate her corpse as best they can so the show can go on.

That sounds like a classic comedy setup, but in one of several deflating decisions made by director Dominique Serrand and his collaborative company, the performers openly admit that Liberty Rose has died — then go ahead and wheel her out anyway. Like so much of Liberty Falls, 54321, Liberty Rose’s posthumous performance is a piece of polished schtick in search of a setup.

The Liberty Rose tribute fills the post-intermission half of this 135-minute show; the first half is a tedious introduction to local yokels, including busybody Tamara (Nathan Keepers), overconfident cougar Francine (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), timid Carmel (Christina Baldwin), and lovestruck Tracy (Dom Wooten). Some of these caricatures are nicely executed — notably the exaggeratedly idiosyncratic Tamara, and Liberty Rose’s bored-to-death granddaughter Serendipity (Heidi Bakke) — but in this no-stakes scenario, the actors are clowning in a vacuum.

When the tribute itself begins, it turns out to be largely a mytho-historical pageant in the spirit of Pipestone’s long-running Hiawatha epic. It’s more silly than satirical, though, and the incongruous operatic interludes feel indulgent. Even the bits that work (Francine’s wandering hands, Epp’s frightful white-caked countenance with eyes painted on his lids) function as detours from, rather than maps to, anything the show might have been trying to say.

Christina Baldwin’s droopy Carmel is symptomatic of the misfires that drag this show down. She does a lot of mumbled speak-singing, which isn’t particularly funny in and of itself, and there’s precious little payoff when she later discovers how to use her pipes like a pro. She’s made to be the dumbest person in town, instead of being smart in a way that might serve as comic contrast. A running gag about the pronunciation of her name is driven into the ground.

All the younger characters seem appalled by Liberty Rose, whose babbling reflects decades of ingrained bigotry. It’s easy to believe that these characters’ real-life counterparts would share that chagrin — but would they all truly be taken aback by Liberty Rose’s views, or just by the fact that she’s carelessly speaking her slurs out loud?

Liberty Falls, 54321
The Moving Company at the Lab Theater
700 N. First St., Minneapolis
612-333-7977; through February 5