Review: “He Woke Up in a Strange Place Called Home…”, Skewed Visions—Four stars

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by Matthew A. Everett | 5/22/09 • “And I think it’s gonna be all right.
Yes, the worst is over now.
The morning sun is shining
Like a red rubber ball.”

First up, Skewed Visions wins the battle for Longest Title of a Recent Production, beating out genocide at Park Square (“I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda”) by three words, and besting the latest from Tony Kushner (“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures”) by five, with their current site-specific/promenading production of “He Woke Up In A Strange Placed Called Home And Although Looking For Bed He Kept Finding Death Instead.”

single white fringe geek is the blog of matthew a. everett. in addition to being one of five bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet, he blogs throughout the year about theater and culture.

But what does the enormous title portend, you ask? Skewed Visions’ Co-Artistic/Managing Director Charles Campbell and his collaborators have concocted another meditation on violence, paranoia, societal responsibility, and nostalgia. It’s big on images, sound, and exaggerated physical movement work, and short on narrative – but that’s deliberate. It’s odd, bittersweet, ambiguous, funny and more than a little unsettling. In short, vintage Skewed Visions.

The audience follows the wandering story of “He Woke Up…” from the living room of one house, through several other spaces, outside and down the block, around to the back deck of another house, past a bed lodged in a tree in the middle of the sidewalk, and finally into yet another house, this one empty, with several other rooms full of unusual images and sounds to stoke the imagination. (And yes, I realize that’s a run-on sentence. What can I say? – it’s catching.)

He Woke Up…” rides that fine line between ambiguous and vague – and rides it hard. So much so that even though many sounds and images are lodged in my brain days later, I’m still having a hard time trying to parse out what it all means. It’s the sort of production from which everyone takes away something very different. We could all voice our own interpretation of the piece, and we’d all be a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. The program tries to provide a bit of guidance…

“Tales of the displaced life of a soldier returning from war have been told for centuries – maybe as long as people have had others do their killing. The displacement of Homer’s Odysseus and Buchner’s Woyzeck are two. Rather than retell these stories, I want to create an experience in which our world meets these imaginary worlds head on. Our history does not disappear when we close the door behind us. The past is part of the landscape; it shapes the space in which we now live.

The prison at Abu Ghraib recently got a new coat of paint and some flowers.”

But lest we think it’s all a bit too serious to enjoy ourselves, the bios offer another guidepost…

“Charles Campbell is interested in creating performances in response to the larger world that encourage intellectual and emotional engagement, and stimulate open-ended experience. And every one is a comedy!”

Horace Walpole said, “Life is a comedy for those who think… and a tragedy for those who feel.” We’re definitely meant to keep our thinking caps on here, but it’s not a traditional theatrical experience, so the audience is always just a little off balance. Entering someone else’s home, we’re encouraged to slip covers over our shoes, then cautioned not to wake the disheveled man sleeping by the piano bench in the living room. Awkward silence yields to spirited conversation from three women in the group, dressed for a fancy party, and bandying about thoughts about news stories of the day. Thoughts of “how rude” and “well, they’re a bit overdressed for this” are shoved aside when I realize the talkers are the trio who make up the dance troupe Mad King Thomas (Theresa Madaus, Tara King, and Monica Thomas). The man sleeping on the floor (Campbell) wakes and becomes our guide for the evening as we frequently re-encounter the party women, and are introduced to several other actresses dressed in military uniforms as well (Blake Bolan, Katie Kaufmann, Cherri Macht, Megan Mayer, and Laurie Van Wieren).

As we headed down the sidewalk at one point, menaced by a passing car slowing and shining a light on us before speeding away, the friend attending the show with me leaned over and whispered, “Is this about schizophrenia? Because that’s what it feels like.” The sense of others watching and judging, alternately friendly and damning, is a recurring theme. The sound of the trigger being pulled on an unloaded gun also resurfaces frequently. Plaintive piano playing, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, form the foundation of an increasingly complex soundscape (from Elliott Durko Lynch) incorporating everything from old pop music to snippets of speeches by Barack Obama. (Since I like Obama, if a sound design like this one can start me thinking things like, “For some reason, the cadences in Obama’s voice remind me of Hitler,” it’s definitely screwing with my head.) Video (from Kevin Obsatz) is also part of the mix, projected on things as varied as hanging laundry outdoors and venetian blinds indoors.

Campbell’s words are mixed with those of Beckett, Buchner, and even James M. Cain, to name but a few. The delivery of monologue and dialogue falls into opposing categories of genial and detached. Campbell’s traveling narrator urges us on, while the female soldiers frequently use words as objects devoid of emotional meaning, more notes in a piece of music, indicators of rhythm, than conversation or presentation. Both styles are deliberately at odds with the visuals – which indicate conflict, violence and death, but always in the abstract. There is no blood. There are no sudden loud noises. Everything simply builds on what came before it. It is theater by accumulation.

Where I think it loses me, just a little, is point of view, and perhaps intent. We are a society currently fighting (at least) two wars, but we’d rather not be reminded. In fact, it’s hard to keep in mind. When the newscaster on the radio today remarked that the death toll in the US from swine flu had reached a whopping ten, my first thought was, “Gee, great. And how many people died in Iraq today?” Not only do we often not bother to keep track of blood being shed on our behalf, when the soldiers come home, we fail them yet again. They shouldn’t be easily ignored as they try to integrate back into “normal” life, but they are. They shouldn’t be easy to forget in a hospital, but they are. We ship them off to fight, and forget about them. We bring them home, thank them briefly, and forget about them. This should be enormously compelling, and disturbing, subject matter.

One of the points of “He Woke Up…” seems to be that the soldiers bring the war back with them, even when their part in the fight is over, and that we ignore this at our peril. But it’s often so abstracted in sound and picture, or so offhand in delivery, that it runs the risk of not making its point. The denial of civilians is a powerful thing, and hard to break through, even with a theater audience of civilians primed to think potentially uncomfortable thoughts about their own culpability. In not wanting to push too hard, I think Skewed Visions might not be pushing hard enough.

Also, we’re never entirely clear what standpoint our wandering narrator and guide is taking. Since he’s not in military garb, I assume he’s a civilian like us in many ways unless I’m told different. If our leader is suffering from the after-effects of war, I didn’t catch it. And if he’s not, then I’d argue the impact isn’t close enough to the surface. I’m not asking to be preached at, but there’s a whole spectrum of nudging and prodding before we get to that level. Turn it up a notch. The fact that the narrator/guide does step fully into and become part of the images that appear in the final of the three houses might indicate something, but days later, I’m still not entirely sure what.

I know on some level it’s wrong (probably sexist) to say that I don’t feel threatened by the women in this production, even in uniform carrying guns, but if I’m honest, I wasn’t. Another opportunity lost. Seeing men in uniform might be a fetish, but it’s a mighty potent one, and for some reason, scarier. I couldn’t tell you precisely why I believe when watching a man that I think, even fear, he would use a gun, while a woman doesn’t prompt the same unease. It’s probably my own hang-up. Fear of guns shouldn’t be confined to one gender. For me, one holds menace, while the other here just seems like play-acting. But perhaps if I got the fear I say I’m looking for, I might be so scared I’d just shut down and the message wouldn’t get through anyway. Maybe an all-female military is the only way to go here. Again, days later, still puzzling it out.

However outside the norm the presentation might be, if I’m allowed to watch, and watch only, and am never confronted with anything directly but only at a great remove, it’s too easy to detach from the subject matter and not be effected at all. It’s all very well to think and ponder. But if “He Woke Up…” wants to inspire re-evaluation and action, undo a little of my complacency, it’s going to need to poke me with a sharper stick. If you’re going to get under my skin, and Skewed Visions always does, then while you’re under there with the opportunity, scratch me a little.

For all my noodling over what it is and isn’t, “He Woke Up…” is still compelling and unusual theater, not easily forgotten. It’s performed by clever people tackling an important topic in an offbeat way, so for all that, it still comes…

Highly Recommended.

Skewed Vision’s production of “He Woke Up In A Strange Placed Called Home And Although Looking For Bed He Kept Finding Death Instead” runs through May 31, 2009 – Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings starting at 8:30pm. Limited capacity (10 per performance – yeah, only 120 spaces for the whole run), and no late seating, since the production is on the move. Both indoor and outdoor locales in the performance, so dress for the weather. All performances begin at 142 Cambridge Street in St. Paul, near the Macalester College campus. Tickets are your choice of $10, $14 or $18, available at 1-800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com. More information at www.skewedvisions.org with a video spotlight on the show at http://3minuteegg.wordpress.com/

Matthew A. Everett is a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.

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