Review: “Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)” at the Guthrie

The premise of “Dr. Strangelove” meets revelations on desire, love, age, and politics in a Split Britches production

Lois Weaver (left) and Peggy Shaw in Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)

Photo by Stephen King

My friend shot me a look. In the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, up on level nine, we were leafing through our programs for Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)—now playing through February 10. “This doesn’t have audience participation, does it?”

I should have warned her. The Guthrie’s Level Nine series, launched 2016, loves audience participation. It’s the experimental side of the Guthrie, hosting productions that reflect diverse perspectives—in this case, a show from the legendary Split Britches theater company. The team, based in New York, has staged feminist, lesbian, gender-mussing performance art since 1980.

My friend could sniff out audience wrangling the moment we walked in. There’s no stage, just risers of chairs boxing in a performance space. The show’s two actors were already seated, lights up, while we self-consciously found ours.

The set will look familiar to anyone who has seen Stanley Kubrick’s enduring Cold War satire, Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. A ring of tables, flanked by screens displaying a world map, invokes the War Room, where, in the 1964 film, the president, his advisors, and other stern officials take their sweet time discussing an impending nuclear holocaust, after a whacked-out general orders a first strike against the Soviet Union. At the Guthrie, there’s the red telephone, too—a link to the imperiled world beyond this dark, bunker-like hotspot.

On one side of the black-box space, Split Britches co-founder Peggy Shaw sits at her general’s perch in a pewter suit, dotted with military badges, her gray hair in a Martin Sheen coif. Lois Weaver, another co-founder and the only other actor in the show, sits across from her, playing “Madam President, Sir,” wearing a short-skirt power suit with garter socks, glasses, and an Edna Mode bob.

For an hour, they gamely reproduce select gaffes from Kubrick’s movie, including the demented physical comedy that actor George C. Scott was later embarrassed by (this time in a skirt) and Peter Sellers’ fumbling, pathetic phone heart-to-hearts.

But, of course, they put their twist on it. News of a nuclear attack has leaked via a hashtag-happy general’s impulsive tweeting habits (wink wink). At the top of the show, audience members set their smartphone timers to one hour, instructed to let them sing loud and uninterrupted when the time comes, signaling the world’s end. Shaw and Weaver must find a way to save us.

And, in mostly failing, the two are wonderful cartoons to watch. Shaw’s general has cowboy swagger, a fire in his loins, and a love for Billy Ward & His Dominoes. Weaver’s long-suffering president returns to a metaphor throughout the show, in monologues where she doesn’t play a president so much as recite poetic takes on desire. (Not “poetic” as in hard to understand; “poetic” as in specific and inspired.)

That metaphor? The real-life phenomenon of unexploded ordnances. These yet-to-detonate leftovers of war—buried or hidden, intentionally or not—are at risk of blowing up even decades after the initiating conflict has played out.

By themselves, these stage elements recast a point from Dr. Strangelove, maybe more germane today: that politics is a series of high-powered relationships (as between the flirtatious general and proprietous president). In another sense, Weaver wonders openly about shame erupting in disaster—an unrealized desire, or an unearthed bomb, finally bursting—and what the four-letter word could be that would snuff it out. (Literally: the four-letter word is an unknown deactivation code.)

For the bulk of Unexploded Ordnances, though, it’s audience participation that shepherds these performance pieces into a memorable whole.

Weaver asks, in the beginning, for audience members of a certain age to stand. Ten people in this oldest bracket become the “council of elders.” They come down, take seats around the circle of tables.

The council will help Weaver and Shaw obviate the apocalypse. Not, fortunately, in that embarrassing way some shows like to blindside their impromptu participants. Weaver breaks the fourth wall to act as a group therapist of sorts, asking the bunch—in their mid-60s and early-70s—what’s been on their minds since the show started.

We brace ourselves. Will this induce cringe? Will any of these unsuspecting Guthrie goers go off the rails?

Shaw and Weaver, we have to remember, have been doing this work for decades. Some of the chairs in the circle are wooden rocking chairs. They’ve clearly been thinking about age. In the lobby before the show, the audience scribbled their “unexplored desires” on furtive scraps of paper, submitting them anonymously in a briefcase. With age, we have less and less time to explore. Weaver comments that cities outside Minneapolis have confessed to more sexually explicit cases of FOMO during this exercise—because libido gets wrapped up in aging, too. The motifs come up in Weaver’s gorgeously written monologues and Shaw’s jokey slurring, with queerness as an undercurrent. How long can you put off your truth? How long will you avoid real connection?

Let it stand: The council was not cringy. On the contrary, they, mostly, seemed perfectly comfortable.

This could be insight—that getting older makes you care less what people think. Prompted by Weaver, they reminisced about hiding under the funnies section of the newspaper during duck-and-cover drills in the ’50s; they railed against overuse of the word “nuance”; they revealed anxiety over whether their parched cat would take advantage of their possibly having left the toilet seat open before leaving the house; they handed down a treasured piece of advice from their immigrant father; they admitted to long-harbored dreams of becoming a rock ’n’ roll singer…

And they got the biggest reactions. Literal peals of laughter, and applause, from the audience. It seemed almost from relief, that this precarious dramatic variable produced good, even moving, results.

It wasn’t totally well-oiled. Weaver occasionally goaded the council, vaguely, albeit politely, to extrapolate their responses to a bigger picture, about how international affairs are going, how the state of the country compares to their younger expectations. This tended to elicit either duds or platitudes. We need to pay more attention to our elders, but it’s not like we haven’t heard these opinions before.

It was when the council tapped into their reservoirs, dredging up memories or even epiphanies, that the premise paid dividends.

We maybe needed Weaver’s big-picture prodding to focus the group thematically, but, even so, she and Shaw never took themselves too seriously. The fourth wall was flimsy. They addressed each other by their real names and talked to the audience as equals, as if we were partners in a workshop.

In the end, Weaver and Shaw turned the therapeutic setup back on themselves, in brief revelations about their hang-ups over what time they have left.

Their respect for the audience, and their intimate reflections, heightened the sense of unity. No small feat, given the bizarro, mushroom-cloud finish to Dr. Strangelove. The council got cards for keeping in touch, and that feeling spread to the lobby, where we were invited to stay for drinks and chat.

Bursting open shame, Shaw and Weaver suggest—while bumbling and flirting, subjecting themselves (and only themselves) to the same comical humiliation that Kubrick subjected his characters to—just think of the repercussions we could avoid, the things we could get done before the clock runs out.

Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)
Through Feb. 10
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis