Interview: Bedlam Theatre’s John Francis Bueche, playing with fire

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One day, somebody is going to back a truck up to Bedlam Theatre and guys in white coats wielding butterfly nets are going to pour out, and that will be that. They’ll round up every last member of the company and deposit them at the nearest mental hospital. In the meantime, though, you can still enjoy the Twin Cities’ zaniest, most thought-provoking fare—theatre of the absurd at its finest.

Pandora’s Fury runs through June 21 at Bedlam Theatre, 1501 S. 6th St., Minneapolis. For tickets ($18) and information, see bedlamtheatre.org.


Bedlam has just opened Pandora’s Fury: A Tale of Fire, a new theatrical work by Rah Kojis—whose Infiammato: An Incendiary Opera (she’s definitely got a thing for flames) was a hit last season. In Pandora’s Fury, a mysterious stranger arrives in town and holds folk spellbound with his magical powers. As suspicions grow, a fury is unleashed. The looming question is whether its release will bring destruction or salvation. Since the show actually does feature fire and not even the daredevils at Bedlam want to risk literally burning down the house, Pandora’s Fury is performed in the parking lot. The show is a full-blown spectacle including fire fans, fire eating, fire breathing, fire this, that, and the other thing—accompanied by, of all things, a live orchestra.

You simply have to expect the unexpected whenever you show up at Bedlam Theatre—that’s the beauty of the place. And who’s the madman behind it all? Bedlam’s founding artistic director, gifted playwright/director John Francis Bueche. Along with fellow artistic director Maren Ward, Bueche comes up with one ingenious foray after another. (FYI: His play To Shining Sea occasionally gets re-mounting. The next time it does, don’t miss this scathing satire of America the oil-thirsty land-grabber.)

Pandora’s Fury is this year’s installment of an annual series?
It’s shaping up that way. Rah has been acting and performing with Bedlam on and off since 1996, and is our fire choreographic master. She’s been doing fire performance and the Bare Bones Halloween show at Vox Medusa and other places.


Since the show actually does feature fire and not even the daredevils at Bedlam want to risk literally burning down the house, Pandora’s Fury is performed in the parking lot. The show is a full-blown spectacle including fire fans, fire eating, fire breathing, fire this, that, and the other thing—accompanied by, of all things, a live orchestra.


I know you guys do outlandish stuff, but how’d you let this firebug get loose on the unsuspecting public?
We’ve always been into visual spectacle and sort of low-tech things. With Rah, it just made sense: combining an interest in dance and circus into a Bedlam show. Take a piece of theater, and put a story line to it. It [reminds me of] that movie, Pleasantville. Remember? The 1950s are black and white, and then [people] start to discover their pleasure and desire and it begins turning into color? [Pandora’s Fury is] sort of like that, only this stranger comes to town with a Pandora’s Box and opens it up. People from a flaming dimension are coming out. So, fire is bringing the color to this black and white world.

Speaking of color, your company is a place where actors, performers, directors, and writers of color can find work. Which makes Bedlam quite welcome, since the minority-oriented venues have iron-clad cliques and mainstream outfits, except Children’s Theatre Company, simply don’t hire that many minorities. How do you feel about running a place where equal opportunity is not just a catch-phrase?
Well, after 15 years and a few […] hard choices and hurt feelings, I still put my head on the pillow feeling pretty good about doing what we think is the right thing rather than the easiest [or] most popular. Still, along the way, we also can be a little insular. [We spend quite] a bit of time naval-gazing and making sense of what’s going on—which can come across as cliquish insider trading. We were actually having a conversation about tensions that can arise when integrating new artists into the company scene, and you know, it’s always a little threatening to your personal artistic identity. But no single one of us is the be-all-end-all, and nothing risked, nothing gained.

What’s next after Pandora?
Maren is sort of spearheading organizing around September when the [Republican] convention comes in. A showcase of out-of-town performers. And organizing people for an artistic response to [Minnesota’s] sesquicentennial.


“Nothing risked, nothing gained.”


You guys are gonna mess with the Republicans’ convention.
Plenty of people are gonna find ways to [do that]. For us the real challenge is to channel that energy into a positive vision: instead of complaining about what is, showing what can be.

How did you get the idea to start Bedlam Theatre?
Maren and, I think, Bob Kerr picked the name. They went for more of the dictionary definition: crazy, off kilter. Whereas for me, the story of that name—Bedlam is from Our Lady of Bethlehem insane asylum.

Figures.
Leading up to the time of Shakespeare, it was an insane asylum and one of the most popular tourist attractions in London. People would pay to walk through the halls of Bedlam and look at the crazy people. Also, at times, if the king didn’t want chop somebody’s head off, but [they] were political dissidents, [the king] would just commit them. There’s a quote from the time that says, “The only place to hear the truth spoken in all of London is among the inmates of the Bedlam asylum.”

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.