THEATER | Minnesota Public Radio’s “Of Mirth and Mischief” at the Fitzgerald Theatre: Kevin Kling tells a good story


They promised magic, and they delivered! Kevin Kling’s Of Mirth and Mischief charmed from the start and brought the audience on an irresistible journey of fantasy and reality through the eyes of a mischievous but lovable boy. 

Just where is the magic, I asked as I clutched the fairy stone given to me by Twig, the fetching, flute-playing fairy in the lobby. No, as beguiling as she was, there was more to it. Noisemakers were strewn throughout the theater for our use, a versatile and vigorous band led by an exuberant Steve Kramer with stunning vocals played. But, of course, it’s Kling who made the magic happen. The audience sighed and gasped and laughed under the spell of an exquisite storyteller.

As the lights dimmed and the curtains opened, an unassuming Kling in a brown suit began: “No man wakes knowing who he is.” Awed silence in the theater. Before we could ponder the profundity, Kling was off and running with his wondrous tale. The boy learns census takers have taken his name: “No, I want to keep my name!” The lingering question, who am I, weaves its way through the show.

Throughout the play, we learned about the boy’s sister who gives her dolls bad haircuts. Every night they sing little brother to sleep, for shadows from the lights of passing cars frighten him: “Nighty night to brother” echoed Kling’s recently published children’s book, Big Little Brother (Borealis Press, 2011).

Life’s trials intrude: a hospital stay for the boy. “See, it’s not the end. It’s all right,” sang the vocalist. Visions and visitors only he can see, escapades and discoveries follow—did you know crows can take away things you fear, and stories are medicine? And a hero’s only as good as his nemesis—darn that “little prince.” The boy contracts measles—no, they’re not fairy kisses as he’d hoped. And he has a change of heart seeing the little prince so afraid of him. He knows how that feels, and smiles reassuringly. 

The boy finds himself in what appears to be a drop-off place for kids with missing pieces. They want to fix his arm. “But that’s what makes me feel special,” he exclaimed. “And then who will I be, what powers will I have?” Surgery ensues and the boy travels to that place of dusk and dawn, the border between what is known, unknown, and unknowable. He finds himself in a fairy tale, Jack and the beanstalk morphed into the 12 dancing princesses. And he meets death three times, outfoxing her, “for now,” she asserted. Awakening from surgery the boy discovers they almost lost him three times.

The boy returns home from the hospital. Sister’s dolls still have bad haircuts, Dad still can’t tell a good story, and it’s his birthday party. Night has fallen and stars appear for this celestial, even eschatological, feast. The boy recognizes the stars, all mingled with gods. ”There’s ‘wiener dog’ and ‘cheese pizza’.” Then it’s time to sing little brother to sleep: “Nighty night to brother/ I miss you so/ Close your eyes/ I am beside you.”

“It’s the best way to fall asleep,” affirmed Kling at the show’s end. The woman next to me inhaled audibly, whispered, “Wow,” and immediately sprang to her feet, joined by others in instant appreciation, all applauding wildly. 

In the show’s afterglow, Kling’s children’s story is more like a coming-of-age tale as the boy knows he’s taken the first steps in becoming a fool, his identity and calling becoming clear. And the adult Kling? Yes, in the esteemed tradition of the fool, magician, seer, and all-around Mensch.

There was plenty of mischief, mirth, and magic in Kevin Kling’s show at the Fitz, and much, much more. While the instrumental music in the second half was too loud for my taste, and I found Kramer’s megaphone escapades in the circus scene rather confusing and distracting, Of Mirth and Mischief is certainly a superb piece Kling has added to his fine repertoire. Though Kling mines some familiar territory, he uncovers something fresh and inviting, yet warmly reminiscent, taking us on a journey through personal narrative bathed in the archetypal, and always with a light touch.

Kling’s genius? The english major/theologian in me asks. He knows his own story and dares to lay bits of it bare before us. He holds to the truth of human experience, with all its complexity, absurdity, and humor, reminding us who we are. And he brings to life in us memories of the child we once were, that essential being that formed the foundation for our lives, and lives in us still, full of questions and fears, wonder, hope, and love. 

Yes, stories are medicine. Are we not saved by our stories? Ask Kevin Kling.

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