Chaos Theory

Can the area’s most anarchic theater grow up without settling down?

ON A HOT SUMMER EVENING, the Riverside Plaza apartment towers, just east of downtown Minneapolis, provide little shade for the rag-tag audience in the Bedlam Theatre parking lot as they plunk down on blankets and lawn chairs. The group has gathered for Dumpster Duels, an annual event in which acting teams are given 48 hours to write, construct, and rehearse a “performance-art spectacle” using props made from trash and scavenged materials. The audience cheers as a mad scientist makes mayhem with a refrigerator box, accompanied by percussion on a bundt pan. Other actors contribute their own thunderous rattle by pounding on one of the giant metal bins that surround the performance site.

Dumpster Duels typifies the experimental performances the 14-year-old troupe has been fostering since its debut with a play that depicted, among other unusual characters, Sylvia Plath and the headless body of Jean-Paul Sartre. Bedlam has built a reputation for being snarky and wildly inventive; even its more conventional performances (i.e., those that are actually rehearsed and performed on stage) tackle subjects too experimental for most companies to consider. But recently, Bedlam has moved closer to being, God forbid, an institution. The theater’s new, 2,300-foot space, which opened last December, and the annual McKnight Foundation funding it first secured in 2002 are signs of an organizational growth spurt. But will maturity and mainstreaming stifle the theater’s radical nature?

Inside Bedlam’s new theater, John Bueche, the company’s co-artistic director (a job he shares with fellow Macalester College alum Maren Ward), stands on the black-box stage. He remarks how the entirety of the company’s old space, located a few blocks away, could have fit in the room, formerly a restaurant. “We’re trying to expand the audience experience,” Bueche explains, as he strolls into the lobby and leans on the bar. “We want to make the theater into a social hub.” That’s why they’re now serving pizzas, pirogies, vegan cupcakes, and beer. “Maybe the theater of tomorrow is where you get a coffee and the paper in addition to seeing a show at night,” Bueche suggests.

The idea of integrating art and community is big buzz in the theater biz: It was one of the central topics at a national conference of theater professionals held in Minneapolis last summer. And, in fact, inviting public participation is what Bedlam does best. At the annual Ten-Minute Play Festival, everyone who auditions is cast. In a 2002 show, the audience watched from seats in the middle of a doughnut-shaped spaceship. Last year’s West Bank Story, which recounted the history of the Minneapolis neighborhood even as it spoofed Bernstein’s musical, pitting hippies against immigrants and college students à la the rival Sharks and Jets, was inspired by two years of research in the form of community-storytelling sessions. It’s exactly the type of collaboration that many larger, more conventional theaters say they would like to do.

In many ways, Bedlam may be the “polar opposite” of the Guthrie Theater, as Bueche puts it, but there are a few things Sir Tyrone’s troupe might envy about the scrappy upstart. Bedlam’s campy, absurdist comedy, its spoofs and political satire, its flamboyant sets, its whimsy and occasional downright lunacy draws youthful audiences, ages 18 to 24, that many established theaters are desperate to attract. “We’re at the outer limit of the local imagination,” Bueche says. “But no matter how crazy we get, the audience seems willing to go there.”

This month, some 3,000 spectators are expected to go “way out” there—to Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul for the annual Halloween Show (which, like Dumpster Duels, is a partnership with the local theater group Barebones). Stilt-walkers, fire-jugglers, and puppeteers will emerge from the darkness of the riverbanks to the sounds of eerie music and chanting. The show is one of the non-traditional traditions that Bedlam’s not about to abandon. So is the Grease Pit, a grungy, do-it-yourself cycle-repair shop—a hangout for the city’s most counter of counterculture, with their tall bikes and tattooed faces—which Bueche notes has been incorporated in Bedlam’s new theater space. So has anything changed? “We used to be naked on stage more,” Bueche remarks. “But that’s a function of youth. It’s still the funnest theater around.”

The 14th Annual Barebones Halloween Show will be held Oct. 27 to 31 at Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul. Visit for information.

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