Word Up

Ready to lick Zell Miller in a speech-off: Gus Lynch in 'The Bath of Surprise'
Courtesy of Bryant-Lake Bowl

Words are often equated with currency (as are time and sex, but let's not stray). Yet anyone with even the mildest media addiction floats in a daily sea of cheap, worthless words--written, spoken, and transmitted--that leaves us craving a life raft of explanation for their subtexts, evasions, and outright balderdash. It's enough to evoke fantasies of a word-free zone, but as T.S. Eliot's Sweeney cogently insisted, "I gotta use words when I talk to you."

So might reason the characters in The Bath of Surprise and Other Failed Lectures. This production is a series of what might be called one-man interludes. It's a curious beast, to which writer Mark Ehling owned up in his own spoken introduction that led off the August 30 show. Ehling abashedly admitted he can never describe the play to the curious, and has to settle for, "It's about guys saying things."

Two actors tackled seven roles in this stripped-down show staged by theatrical company crabapple. Gus Lynch took on, most notably, a wholesomely off-kilter scoutmaster about to lead his charges to a presumably terrible summer camp. Another piece had him recounting his family's efforts to convince him of the existence of an evil creature who lived to bite his "pecker." Lynch is a big guy, and he utilized his bulk and physical dynamism to great effect in Bath of Surprise. In Bryant-Lake's ramshackle intimacy, Lynch pressed himself close to the front of the stage, at times making eye contact with individual audience members. Lynch plays to good effect a volatile, somewhat twisted regular guy through monologues that frequently referenced the myriad cruelties life inflicts on guileless young men.

Bryan Bevell (also the production's director) seemed to take great pleasure in the unctuous possibilities afforded by the lots he drew in Ehling's eight-part construct. His whiskey-besotted DJ purred through an on-air spot for a booze brand "drenched in history and ancient stuff." He reached his public-speaking high point as a corporate-award winner who knew his detractors were saying, "Come on...The man is a piece of shit." Bevell, like Lynch, admirably tackled the sheer volume of verbiage these roles demanded--if either got lost, they adeptly relocated the rhythms of their character's speech. Bevell's final turn as a merrily perverse psych doctor also featured a wordless Lynch as his assistant--and Lynch's stolid bulldog expression earned escalating laughs from his side of the theater.

The Bath of Surprise is a remount from the 2002 Fringe Festival; in the intervening years, Ehling ventured to Alabama for an MFA in creative writing. Reached in St. Paul, he recounted how the play was inspired by a "weird gig" transcribing phone conversations. When these humdrum interactions were immortalized on the page, Ehling saw "spitwads of nonsense and the linguistic traps of language gone wrong." This led him, logically enough, to tackle characters hanging themselves with nooses wrought of their own verbal spewage. The piece alludes to the Boy Scouts, the media, fraternities, public relations, the psychiatric establishment, and the family--all entities and institutions that shape, mold, or warp the individual and which, in the show, hide their deranged nature behind words. It's a subversive work, but Ehling's hidden meanings aren't terribly malignant. He seems to be a gentle humorist at heart, quick with a laugh line and bemused by life in a manner reminiscent of David Sedaris. The play goes easy on the audience, limiting the shouting and pontificating to little more than 60 minutes. For individuals barraged by words, massaged by words, embittered and lent hope by words, it's an oddly resonant hour. Whatever words are worth today--and, really, they seem to come pretty cheap--time spent with Ehling's absurdist explorations tends to make one a bit fonder of the shopworn old things.

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