While the appeal of a big-ticket night of popular theater is undeniable, so is the thirst for the live equivalent of the art-house movie—that refreshing tang of surprise, originality, and the unexpected. It’s an experience that Workhaus Collective delivers with a startlingly high degree of consistency.
I first profiled Workhaus back in 2007, when its playwright-centered model was newly arrived to the Twin Cities (along with some of its main players). The idea was inspired by the New York company 13P, which produced new works by member playwrights in irregular rotation. Sidestepping the traditional theater company, it banked on the notion that writers would deliver their best and most daring stuff in a spirit of collaboration and friendly competition, and that a relatively low-cost-and-infrastructure outfit could sustain itself while avoiding the familiar works that are ticket-selling bread and butter elsewhere.
Ever the materialist, I wrote: “…for Workhaus, perhaps unfortunately—its finances are one of its primary concerns, no matter how elevated its ambitions.” If you’d have asked me then, I’m not sure I would have laid better-than-even odds on Workhaus still being around in 2015, though I sure as hell would have hoped so. The Playwrights’ Center deserves major credit, of course, as a clearinghouse for funding, a home stage, and serving as a psychic and spiritual nexus of belief in the literary end of the contemporary theater.
But here’s the thing: None of it would have meant much, then or now, if the overall quality of the work didn’t deliver. Workhaus is home to some of the most interesting mid-career playwrights in the country and consistently attracts the best acting talent in the Cities because those practitioners want to work on new, searching, challenging plays. If the work hasn’t all been successful, enough of the shows have stuck with me as favorites—800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick, Music Lovers, and God Save Gertrude among them (where else was I going to see work about my favorite madman sci-fi novelists, the embers of rock ’n ’roll romance, and Hamlet meets Debbie Harry, respectively?).
This month, Workhaus offers Dominic Orlando’s The Reagan Years, a harrowing thriller about four debauched male friends on the eve of their college graduation. It’s full of mayhem (of the emotional and physical varieties), and picks up on Orlando’s recurring themes of the permeating corruptibility of power. It’s disturbing, compelling, and guaranteed to provide conversation all the way home—and probably well into the days to come.
The Reagan Years
At the Playwrights’ Center