THEATER | A night of “Symbolism and Decadence” at the Colonial Warehouse Building

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I had the opportunity on Sunday to see the last night of MPLS Autotelic: An Evening of Symbolism and Decadence, which was co-produced by Mixed Precipitation and Nightpath Theatre Company, and I was so happy I did. The luxurious evening highlighted the beauty of the Colonial Warehouse Building and featured some wonderfully over-the-top performances featuring Twin Cities theatre makers and performance artists.


Before I go on, I should mention that I was originally going to be part of the festival, so this is more an insider reflection than a review. This is the second year that curator Scotty Reynolds has organized an evening of performances in the Colonial Warehouse. Last year, he curated an event that featured works by and inspired by Harold Pinter (I was in one of the performances last year).


The Colonial Warehouse building is simply a gorgeous venue. Built in 1885, it was the former home of the horse-drawn trolley system, according to the Minneapolis Warehouse District Web site. Scenes took place in hallways, at the theatre in Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts, which is located in the building, and in empty rooms featuring hardwood floors, wood beams and French windows. There was something magical and exciting about exploring the old building with my fellow audience members, led by the ghost-like Docent Abbie Claire Williams, as we happened upon scenes in the various nooks and crannies.


This year’s theme, “Symbolism and Decadence,” draws from two periods in art and literature. Symbolism, according to Wikipedia, began in the late nineteenth century in France and Belgium, was characterized by highly metaphorical and suggestive techniques, and was an attempt at capturing absolute truths by using symbols. (Arthur Rimbaud is often classified as a Symbolist Poet, and his work was read out loud by the Docent as the audience waited for the elevator.)


Decadence, according to Wikipedia, began in the 18th century in France, and the proponents of the movement valued artifice over the earlier Romantics’ naïve view of nature. Oscar Wilde’s Salome is sometimes considered a decadent work.


For the most part, all of the performances in Autotelic embraced the themes. There was nothing realistic, nothing natural about any of the performances. From April Sellers’s hilariously over-the-top performance of a mad, half naked possibly turn of the century ex-dancer/prostitute to the extremely handsome Steven Norquist singing opera by candlelight, with his white dress shirt half unbuttoned as he pined and emoted with lyrical ecstasy, the evening kept pushing envelope farther to see how much the audience could take. It turns out, the audience was happy the night I went to go to that extreme place beyond the realm of reality.


The show I was originally cast in, but ended up dropping out because of a conflict, was The Crystal Spider, written by Madame Rachide and directed by my friend Maggie Scanlan. Sad as I was not to be a part of the production, I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. The one act took place in a huge empty room with wood floors, pillars, and French windows overlooking Third Avenue. There were just a few light sources which set the dark mood for the piece, and a violinist played enchanting music in the corner. The characters of the play are Terror Stricken (Michael Ooms) and his mother, played by Andie Olthoff. Ooms’s portrayal of the neurotic Terror Stricken was unlike anything I’ve seen him play before, and I was delighted to see how physical he could be in the role, which is surprising given his enormously tall stature. Olthoff was appropriately vain, seductive and authoritarian in her role, although it was a little bit of a stretch to believe the twenty-something woman could be Ooms’ mother.


The one piece that I felt didn’t really fit with the themes of the evening was Expect the Unexpected: A Study in Entropy, created and performed by Jennifer Arave. While I really enjoyed the performance piece, it seemed to be in a different world than everything else in the evening. It was a very contemporary piece, with voice-overs of a job interview overheard as a woman on a subway train leaned further and further against the subway pole until she was balanced horizontally between two poles. It was a very fun piece, but I wasn’t really quite sure what made it fall into the “Symbolism and Decadence” category. If you have thoughts about this, please leave a comment below.


Camilla Hempleman had a nice little scene by Wallace Stevens, which was directed by her husband Terry Hempleman, a regular actor at the Guthrie. The piece about candles concluded the evening nicely.


I do hope Reynolds continues with the Colonial Warehouse Festival next year. The building has such a wonderful energy that adds so much to the experience of seeing theater. I can’t wait to find out what is going to happen there next.