The War Within/All's Fair takes on workplace absurdities

Take this job and shove it: Suzanne Warmanen and Jon Ferguson
Dave Rector

Looking around the stage last weekend at the Southern Theater, I had a sense of anticipation ahead of The War Within/All's Fair. Decades of watching work crafted by Dominique Serrand and Steve Epp — first with Theatre de la Jeune Lune and in more recent years on their own or in the new Moving Company — have tuned the senses. The Moving Company's Come Hell and High Water from last year, also produced at the Southern, was one of the best experiences of 2011.

So what's onstage? There is a small pile of dirt, a bucket on a pulley with duct tape around the bottom, a wheelbarrow, a traffic cone, a water cooler, and a small trailer put up on cinder blocks.

The imagination runs wild thinking about what could be done with all this — a sense of anticipation that is largely fulfilled through this 80-minute nonlinear exploration of the modern workplace. Epp and Serrand step behind the scenes this time, leaving the performing to an eager and able cast led by Nathan Keepers, who collaborated with the two on the piece. (Playwright Cory Hinkle also contributed.)

Born of a collaboration between the Moving Company members and students in the University of Minnesota department of theater arts and dance, The War Within/All's Fair introduces us to a grotesque office that — like The Office on British and American TV or in the workplace nightmares of author Thomas Ligotti — isn't so much an exaggeration of what happens in the day-to-day drone of work as it is an honest representation of the madness. The workers shuffle from place to place at the whims of the boss. There are workplace romances, team-building exercises, and the ever-present threat that the next layoff could come at any moment.

As the piece doesn't particularly build to a point, its effectiveness comes in the moment-to-moment jokes and observations. That can be bits of outlandish gossip about co-workers — one who has been fired is labeled a child molester because the company wouldn't say why he was let go — or the confused life philosophy of the maintenance man (played by co-creator Keepers), who comes off as an absurdist Joe the Plumber (that's probably a redundancy) while sharing his thoughts as he extends a cherry picker to the ceiling of the stage.

There are some remarkable, almost breathtaking moments. In the middle of the piece, a couple of the workers are reprimanded by the boss character (Jon Ferguson). While he talks, they mime different ways to off him, from a simple shot to the head to more elaborate actions. It doesn't take long for everyone to get involved, eventually leaving the stage littered with mimed corpses.

That leads into the show's best extended bit, as one of the workers — new guy Josh (U of M student Sam Kruger, who was part of a 2011 workshop of the material) — doesn't survive the mock attack. His corpse stays at work, however, manipulated by the one co-worker who has noticed his untimely end, sharing a bit of workplace business with the oblivious boss or engaging in one of those office romances we are always warned about. Playing dead is never easy, but Kruger pulls it off, creating a series of very funny moments through the back half of the play.

The program notes clearly let the audience know that "if you are looking for a play here, you won't find it." That's certainly true. The War Within/All's Fair is like all the mad moments that happen in a day at work compressed into a single burst, but leaving the actual drudgery of work out of the equation.

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