Baudelaire Lies, May 21, 22, at Franklin Art Works, 1021 E. Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. Direction: Cherri Macht. Sound: Rich Barlow. Lights: Don Mabley-Allen .Set: Nate Cutlan.
I enjoyed a nice piece of avant theater the other night, courtesy of Flaneur Productions. The occasion was a workshop-style performance of Prim’s “theatrical confrontation with the work of Charles Baudelaire.” Performed well by Jim Bovino, it was an attempt to take the theatricality of Baudelaire’s writing and make something of it.
All the trappings of experimental theater were present. An uncomfortable lobby (no place to sit), a giant sculpture in the next room (Chris Larson’s untitled spaceship crashing into a house, with a nice piney freshness about it), a late start (fifteen minutes), a dark room with an intermittent light showing what looked like a dead body hanging oddly from a scaffold, a treacherous walk to our seats, a bare room in which a few minimalist props were set, a stark set of white lights that came out of nowhere and went back. A soundscape came from speakers behind the audience, in which a pair of cellos entwine in mordant, discordant harmony, slowly and carefully, while a deep voice (Jim Bovino's) speaks from the work of tonight’s object of desire.
All these things I like.
Franklin Artworks started as a renovation project for the neighborhood, and evolved into an avant gallery that is steadily written up in national and local art publications and columns. But it only takes up about a third of the space. The rest is where this play takes place, and it’s a great setting. This was a movie theater that my mom used to go to in the twenties and thirties, and like the Southern Theater it has a broken proscenium arch over one great wall. But instead of a staging area, it has a tattered movie screen. There are so few places in Minneapolis that are old that it is natural to look to this space and not dress it up at all. Visually, the space offers a lot because of it. The contrast between the ancient wall and the refurbished stark concrete and wallboard gives the scenic director a chance to change scenery simply by doing a blackout, moving the actor, and bringing up a light in a different place. Our actor is wearing a shirt that is perfect, a flouncy thing that renders any additional scenery superfluous.
Bovino does a nice job personifying this self-absorbed icon of indulgence. Was he a dandy with a great intellect? Or was he a selfish blowhard who couldn’t perceive past the end of his upturned nose? Was he full of insight about the nature of art and the struggle of the artistic temperament? Or was he one of those dilletantes who talk about it but never do it? That is the struggle we have in making sense of his work. Opening night jitters aside, Bovino cuts a dashing figure, whining and prating and preening and yearning and agonized. It’s never overdone in the acting, no matter how overdone the writing is.
Don’t get me wrong; we are here to hear the overdone writing. We want to make more sense of this stuff, to see if it holds up as spoken word. Does that demystify it or intensify it? I think it does both. “We must live and sleep in front of the mirror” reminds me of Michael Jackson saying he would sleep on stage if he could. Baudelaire describes “...a burning need to be original” and “...the proud satisfaction of never being amazed” and “Paris may change, but my melancholy is fixed” and “dear God, let me produce just a few verses so that I am not inferior to those I despise.” He wanders off into abstract thinking about art, and worries about tumbling into the abyss of the abstract. His subject is self-awareness, and he is self-aware enough to know he’s painted himself into a corner on occasion. My favorite line in the text is when he enumerates a series of awful images, and then says the only thing worse is boredom. Then he accuses the thrill-seeker who reads his books of being hypocritical, and calls him “my double, my brother.”
So this is an ambitious undertaking that Prim is working on, and I for one hope he gets a chance to produce it again with fuller production values. Prim is open to suggestion and learning, and knew he had to get it up on stage to see what was working.
I had only two problems with this production. The first was that the humorous aspects of the text were kept in the wings for too long. There are a couple of very funny set pieces that could make the deeper material more accessible. As Graydon Royce of the Strib once put it, when I was eavesdropping on a private conversation he was having, “The humor early on opens us up, and then we can be more affected by the emotion.” I think of it as first cracking open the sternum, and then giving the audience the Heart Punch. But it's the same idea.
The other problem is the Franklin itself. The dramatic echo also works against comprehension, and this is dense material, as dense as listening to Shakespeare. You don’t have to miss many words to miss what’s going on, and in this script that can be deadly. The place needs some curtains, some carpeting, something to deaden the huge expanse of flat surface that makes lines sound like gargling. I could here everything Bovino said when he was near me and looking at me, but that was not where he was, or should be, most of the time.
Reggie Prim has more ideas. I hope he gets more chances to spell them out. If this was taken on as a workshop by a place like the Jungle or the Illusion, I thinks something great could be made out of it. And Prim and company should be applauded for tackling the assignment.