How to Talk Minnesotan
Minnesota! It's Not Just for Lutherans Anymore
Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop
AT A PARTY last winter, two Minnesota transplants--a New Yorker and a Los Angeleno--were talking. The New Yorker said, "We used to call this 'flyover' country back east. What'd you guys call it in California?" "We didn't," said she. In this and many other ways, Minnesota reminds me of the former Czechoslovakia: landlocked, agrarian, long-suffering but proud, with Minneapolis as its glitzy sodomite capital. But instead of asking new-
comers, "Our beer is very fine, yes?," Minnesotans will ask if you've been to the Mall of America, or maybe they'll mention the Replacements. Mostly, though, they'd rather talk about where you're from. Like many small nations, they're secretly in love with themselves. Of course, it's mostly unrequited.
Ten years ago when Howard Mohr's book How to Talk Minnesotan came out, my mother and her friends started saying "you got that right" constantly, cracking themselves up every time. A dam had burst: They'd always known they were different; now they realized they were funny. A decade later, Minnesotans--and outsiders--are still laughing: at A Prairie Home Companion, Fargo, and now at two new plays, Minnesota! It's Not Just for Lutherans Anymore and the new musical version of How To Talk Minnesotan. It's getting a little creepy--pretty soon they'll all have to include skits about how Minnesotans love to make fun of themselves.
As you might guess from the title, How to Talk Minnesotan obsesses over local lingo and customs, like accepting food on the third offer, and phrases like "It could be worse" (a classically Czech saying, by the way). The best skit pays religious homage to that incredibly hackneyed topic, hot dish. I don't want to ruin it, but let's just say Lutherans like a skewer in the gut; some even screamed.
Unfortunately, the land of How to Talk Minnesotan isn't any place I know. It seems hard to imagine, but this show doesn't address the topic of winter, or farming. The set is supposed to be the lodge house of a family-owned lake resort, with wood paneling, mounted fish and animal heads, and a nearly tropical vibe. That's fine, but if you want to get really nostalgic, let's talk about oilcloth. Cornfields. Windmills, screened porches, train tracks, andtornadoes. And where are the Germans and Bohemians and Native Americans? The sweaty farmboys and half-lit beer bars? Where's the ice cream?
The cast is good--I particularly liked Russell Konstans as Ed, the big guy who constantly adjusts the beak of his baseball cap and has a compulsive car-talk problem. But at this point the show is just a bit of harmless narcissism for an exclusive audience--and after seeing Mohr's half-hour video by the same name, I wished he had served as a narrator, a voice of droll apathy to keep things from getting too cute.
Where Mohr satisfies Minnesotans' nostalgic side, the new show from Dudley Riggs' speaks to pure local self-loathing. It's about 50 percent riskier than Mohr's, though there's still plenty of room for growth. This is the Minnesota we urbanites know: racists, shitty drivers, ultrahip Radio K DJs, skyways, coffee, and, of all things, Rex Daisy. I'm not sure why, but their music figures prominently. The cast has apparently studied the group's magical way with a medley: One particularly funny tribute to the skyways slaps together the melodies of "Stairway to Heaven," "Don't Fence Me In," and "Loveshack."
"Stribtease" was by far the show's most biting piece, and got the biggest response from the audience. Using two fans made of newspaper, Ahna Brandvik sings a song about "promising the news but never delivering" and editorial impotence. (I wonder when someone is going to spoof this paper? God knows we could use it....)
The show generally moves at a brisk pace, with plenty of blackouts, though a few bits dragged: It may have seemed like a good idea, but it's really not that funny to watch people sitting around trying to come up with Minnesota tourism slogans. And as with other Riggs shows, I wished it had gone further, had more pieces like "Stribtease." Maybe someday they'll put on a show of all the bits that were deleted in the interest of good taste.
Still, you can trust this show. How to Talk Minnesotan advocates the "canned, not fresh" approach in cooking and in comedy. It represents a longing for a time when Minnesotans were white and so was the food, and everyone else was stuck on the reservation. When things were predictable, and if you were gay, you left town. A time when Minnesotans didn't know they were cute. As these shows testify by their very existence, that's an era quickly disappearing. Come to think of it, maybe that's why small-town refugees like my mother are finally laughing.
How to Talk Minnesotan: the Musical runs at Plymouth Playhouse "till...whenever"; call 553-1600. Minnesota! It's Not Just for Lutherans Anymore runs at Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop through March 29; call 332-6620.
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