The Bad Seed

What's not to love about Kevin Kling? This homegrown, nationally acclaimed actor/playwright, who manages to be simultaneously artistic and accessible, has been dubbed a "Garrison Keillor for the latte set" by a local theater critic. But lattes are now commonplace, and the fans filling the Jungle Theater last Christmas for Fear and Loving in Minneapolis did seem the sort who'd readily attend Prairie Home Companion shows over at the Fitzgerald.

This may have something to do with why Kling is showing a distinctly different face with The Education of Walter Kaufmann, a play that stands to refine his audience a bit. With the title character, this local boy made good has created someone really bad--not bad-cool or bad-naughty, but bad-psycho.

"This is a jaw into another way of thinking," Kling explains over beers after a rehearsal. "The risk is that it can go places you've never been or it can fall on its face--or it can do both at the same time."

Navigating with Kling through Walter Kaufmann's world is longtime friend and Frank Theatre director Wendy Knox, whose art-at-all-costs approach to theater has led to offbeat, oftentimes unabashedly difficult productions. It's an odd pairing that fits once you've read Kling's script, which conflates fact and fancy to the point where they're sometimes barely distinguishable.

The Education of Walter Kaufmann concerns, on a superficial level, the interrogation of Kaufmann, a student at Medericus College. Medericus, notes Kaufmann, is "the saint you pray to for intestinal disorders," which is one of many sly clues to the horrible deed he's being questioned for. In telling the story of how Kaufmann arrived at this rather distressed state, the play becomes a meditation on the variety of ways--madness among them--by which people learn who they are and find their place in the world.

Though The Education of Walter Kaufmann's run at the Southern Theater is an area premiere, Kling first performed a version of it two years ago at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Its reception there, he says, was rather chilly. "I knew something was going on when the lights came up and this critic from one of the daily papers was trying to sneak out early but she tripped and fell on her face and her papers went flying."

The problem with that earlier production, says Knox, is that it was a collection of "interesting stories" about Kaufmann capped off by a big shocker. "People would go, 'And you did WHAT?'," Kling recalls, referring to Kaufmann's misdeed, "but it was for all the wrong reasons." The script underwent a thorough rewrite in order to show where Walter's coming from, mentally speaking--which is to say that this weakling farmboy turned aspiring business student turned frustrated academic is still one sick soul. "This isn't the warm and fuzzy Kevin Kling stuff that people know and love," warns Knox.

Indeed, a big part of Knox's job is to shake the warm fuzzies out of Kling's persona. "It's a challenge for him to give up everything that everyone loves about him," she says. "Kevin is a fun, funny guy with this animation, this energy just bubbling over. I've had to say no to that, squelch that."

When things are in a groove in rehearsals, Kling curdles into Kaufmann, who's an arrogant creep in the way that only the perennially insecure and trod-upon can be. He's pitiable, but hardly likable. In the first moments of the play, he recalls a confrontation with a cook and a janitor at the college: His epithet for the former is "you fuckin' human torch" (Kling had just changed it from the too-cute "Missus human torch"); and janitors, he spits, are "the biggest bunch of passive aggressive bastards on the planet... working on hands and knees inhaling big old solvent one-hits. And these are the guys we give all the keys? Geez."

The Education of Walter Kaufmann is not without some classic Klingisms: The young Kaufmann wins second place for a paper submitted at the Angst Festival; and after rooming with a football jock his freshman year, he lives off-campus in the Kind of a Loner House. But it's hard to say whether an audience watching Kaufmann, as opposed to Kling, will think they're funny. Still, with a glut of cultural product (plays, books, music, Garrison Keillor) being hailed for its "quirkiness" or "eccentricity," Kling aims to shepherd those very qualities, which of course have been crucial to his own success, onto an unfamiliar path--one that has brambles and things that bite, and doesn't arrive at a definitive conclusion.

It won't be surprising if some of his fans don't want to follow. "You have to grow," he says simply, and it's clear he's talking less about his career than his art. Kling doesn't say so, but it seems that his personal endeavor with The Education of Walter Kaufmann is spelled out in the play, in an aphorism that Kaufmann's mother, an amazing cook, has hung above her stove on a plaque: "Go in good... come out better." CP

The Education of Walter Kaufmann opens Thursday at the Southern Theater; call 340-1725.

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