Bedlam Theatre: The soul of the Fringe

John Cole (left) and John Bueche about to hit the road
Nick Vlcek

THE MINNESOTA FRINGE Festival has evolved into such a gargantuan beast, its 169 shows this year running such a broad gamut of skill, ambition, and vision, that any attempts to generalize fall into incoherence (two shows this year reference selkies, for instance—did you know there's a Scottish myth about women who transform into seals? I didn't). But if there's one entity this year that embodies the Fringe, it's the soon-to-be homeless Bedlam Theatre.

Word came out of the blue last month that Bedlam had to vacate its West Bank digs at the end of August, after four years of establishing the place as a theater, nightlife destination, and center for community outreach. The property at 1501 S. Sixth St. will be converted into a mosque. But Bedlam co-artistic director John Bueche has hit the ground running in mapping out his theater's immediate future.

"In general we're looking at a two-pronged approach," Bueche says. "We want to set our sights on a permanent home elsewhere and stay as close to the neighborhood and the alternative transit corridor as we can. We want to purchase a building or have a solid 25-year lease. Then we can invest some time and energy into making that the ideal Bedlam social hub."

This balance between art and community involvement stands out in the pair of Fringe shows Bedlam is presenting this year at Mixed Blood Theatre: Aniga Adiga (Me and You), featuring a cast of West Bank youth, and Superlatives of Excellence, an arty, deeply strange, and intermittently riotous comedy by longtime Bedlam co-conspirator Josef Evans.

A recent rehearsal for Aniga Adiga drove home Bedlam's penchant for turning chaos into coherence. More than a dozen youths, mostly young men, showed up at the Bedlam rehearsal space and, after a good deal of wrangling, got to the heart of the show: short monologues addressed to the audience, revealing windows into each performer's personality and their experiences being East African in Minnesota.

"We did a 10-minute play with four youths," says Christopher Allen, who works with Bedlam's Cedar Riverside Art Zone for Youth (C.R.A.Z.Y.) program. "That gave us the idea for the Fringe show—all the boys wanted to do a bigger show after that experience."

And it is a big show, riding the line between the personal and the universal. During rehearsal, one young woman told a story about her mother kicking her out of the house over a cultural difference. In one aside, a teen mentioned his discombobulation at seeing white people for the first time. The rehearsal was hugely entertaining, and under Bueche's direction a rather ramshackle group of adolescents began to find a common purpose.

Allen points to another facet of the show: providing some summer employment for the cast (all receive stipends for their work). "We said, 'We want to hire you guys as actors.' It's part of a program trying to push toward helping neighborhood youth get jobs," Allen says. "There are 2,000 youth in this neighborhood and very few jobs. With Aniga Adiga, we're showing them that this is what it's like to be a professional actor."

The night before, a very different rehearsal took place for Superlatives of Excellence. The play is a collection of snippets from playwright Evans, pieced together by the conceit that Evans is staging a "festival" of his work in the family garage. Director Maren Ward plays Evans in a ridiculous wig and off-kilter mustache, gleefully chewing scenery while painting Evans as pompous, self-deluded, and easily riled.

"It's funny, but in writing these kinds of ridiculous plays there is an element of self-delusion I feel like I have to have," says Evans, who deals in a particular brand of absurdity. In one scene, ninja astronaut feminists descend on an unsuspecting library; in another, God prank-calls Satan on the phone, then takes a dump offstage and declares the results "another bun in the oven."

"A lot of this is an homage to Confederacy of Dunces," adds Evans. "There's a lot of Ignatius Reilly in there, with all these grand pronouncements and unnecessarily grand language. Of course the character based on me doesn't know what he's talking about."

Neither of these works could have come into being without Bedlam's history and track record. Aniga Adiga, a work about the immigrant experience directed by a non-immigrant, is clearly the result of the good will and communication brought about by Bedlam's youth outreach programs, which include open-mic nights and acting classes throughout the year.

Superlatives of Excellence draws its roots from the wild and wooly side of Bedlam, including its 10-Minute Play Festival and its longtime ethic of creating theater in a collaborative community setting. Putting Evans's witty, strange, absurdist comedies onstage is an act of creative anarchy. Evans admits that, to date, he hasn't been "necessarily aiming at anything mainstream or whatever."

Wherever Bedlam finds itself after this month, it won't be at the West Bank home it has occupied since 2006. While the immediate future is very much up in the air, the situation has attracted the attention of a wide swath of the community, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

"I've called Bedlam personally and have assured them that city staff is working on finding a solution," Rybak wrote in an email. "They are a valuable community asset that we very much want to keep."

Bueche clearly wants to make the next stop Bedlam's last for the foreseeable future—which means resisting the temptation to rush into new arrangements.

"For the next two to three years we're envisioning ourselves as a mobile pop-up organization," Bueche says. "We want to take what we learned running this venue and focus it more clearly on the productions. We can open a space for a month or two, with a full infrastructure of food and drink and nightlife activity."

It sounds ambitious, but based on what Bedlam has pulled off since 2006, it would be foolish to question what the group can do. For the duration of the 2010 Fringe, Bedlam's work will prove an apt microcosm of the festival's diversity—not to mention the sharpness and drive of a group that belies the madness of its name.

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