The Fourth Wall

AT THE BEGINNING of every performance, Michelle Hensley delivers the same spiel: "We're 10,000 Things. We're a theater company that brings the plays to you. You don't have to come to us..." This time out, as her actors take their places in the Hennepin County Women's Correctional Facility dining room, Hensley comes to these words, then pauses and shrugs: "Of course, you couldn't..." The prisoners chuckle.

They've been summoned here by the kind of introduction that no pompous actor would brook. "Anyone who wants to see the play, go to the dining room now," a voice crackles over the prison PA system. "It'll give you something to do this afternoon." In one corner of the dining room, the musical director and stage manager sit squished among pushed-aside tables, instruments, and props. A circle of chairs surrounds a small, open playing space. About 30 women file in methodically. There's a bit of tension as one tells another, "You can't sit here--I'm saving it for Sue." Some women sport prison-issue booties, but most are wearing sneakers, jeans, and sweats. A few lean over and pluck at the harp that sits center stage, then giggle and pull their hands away. Sue arrives and the production gets underway.

This play, Aphra Behn's The Emperor of the Moon, is scheduled for performances in drop-in centers, treatment and recovery facilities, and the prison--business as usual for 10,000 Things. On first glance the script--a 17th century commedia dell'arte--seems an unusual choice: An old doctor, obsessed with the idea that people live on the moon, decrees that her daughters should marry moon men. So the doctor's clever servant and the daughters' earthly suitors cook up a scheme to dupe the doctor into believing the girls are, in fact, being courted by moon men. There's a lot of deceit, multiple betrayals, close calls, hiding in closets, and the like. Essentially, it's zany. Which is to say that nothing here is an imitation of hardscrabble urban consciousness, no "issues" are conspicuously resolved, nor is this pat therapy theater.

Enter the fop: The buck-toothed, sniveling, pantalooned music teacher stumbles to the harp. The audience laughs heartily. Before long, the mood in the room has taken on the aura of a call-and-response church; prisoners speak directly to the characters ("Don't listen to him, honey!"), and the characters answer back. The audience responds most immediately to the strength of the female characters; at one point the suitors grovel and the women cheer and guffaw. Deception really turns this audience on, as does the wildly bawdy humor. They laugh at moments a paying audience might meet with polite indifference.

But much of this "traditional" audience might not even attend. 10,000 Things has trouble getting the theater community and critics to take them seriously, which is ironic to the extent that serious theaters rarely aspire to or achieve such artistry in their work. The company's recent repertoire--Maria Irene Fornes's Mud, Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle--reveals more consistently challenging work than most regional theaters dare, while the cast boasts résumés from Guthrie, Jeune Lune, Penumbra, and the film Fargo.

"It's so much more gratifying not to have the lights come down on the audience and to have their reactions right there," company member Larissa Kokernot explains. "It makes you work so much harder to make a connection." And while the actors assuming these roles aren't chasing fame, they're similarly circumspect--even cryptic--about the benefits for the audience. "I try to stress that the theater we do isn't any different than the theater the Guthrie does in terms of whether it changes someone's life or solves any problems for them," Hensley says. "I don't know what [this] show will do, except that it will do whatever theater does."

As the performance ends, actors and audience applaud each other and then prisoners file out, giggling. One woman approaches Hensley: "I saw you guys with the chalk-circle play and I liked it a lot, but this was much more fun." And then the intercom again comes to life. "You can go to Group or back to your cell," a voice announces.

Fun's over.

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