When we were in grad school, my friend Dave and I saw a TV special on spicy food. Inspired, we set out to raise our Scoville unit tolerance thresholds. Tabasco became ketchup, pureed habañeros became relish, and when we traveled to New Orleans, we handily took down everything Bourbon Street had to throw at us. I hit my limit at the Mall of America, when the spiciest sauce at the spice sauce store threw me into hiccuping convulsions; Dave did okay with that, and kept turning up the heat until one night he slathered concentrated hot sauce on a chicken wing and nearly threw up. The point is, we’d done it—managed to put down some seriously spicy food. But where do you go from there? You have to dial it back and reintroduce some flavor.
There’s a parallel here to absurdity in theater. At the time of the original Dada movement, which hit its peak around 1920, the movement’s embrace of randomness, disorienting juxtapositions, and narrative aimlessness was unprecedented and shocking. Today, we’ve been there and done that. It’s now routine to perforate the boundary between performers and the audience, to create surreal and disorienting settings, and to dispose of conventional plotting. Come to DADA, John Bueche’s short play that constitutes the first half of Dalí-DADA, is a fairly straightforward homage to classic Dada; it’s nicely done and often fun to watch, but in the end it feels like a largely academic exercise.
|dalí-dada, presented through may 2 at bedlam theatre, 1501 s. 6th st., minneapolis. for tickets ($15) and information, see bedlamtheatre.org.|
In Come to DADA, an ensemble of ten eclectically-dressed performers enact predictably absurd scenarios: babbling to individual audience members, listing a day’s complete diet in great detail (lots of products endorsed by Chairman Bob), climbing into and out of cages, and relating dreams posted to a Bedlam blog. The performers are engaging and often amusing, which is nice…but aren’t we supposed to be uncomfortable? Maybe it makes sense from a meta-aesthetic perspective: what’s more authentically fatalistic than to abandon aspirations to artistic progress? 90 years later, de do do do, de da da da is still all we have to say.
The second half of the show, Dalí’s Liquid Ladies, is another matter altogether: it deploys surrealism to genuinely powerful effect in the context of a very funny farce about a plot to kill the great painter. Playwright Savannah Reich sets the action at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where Dalí created a “surrealist funhouse,” an erotic grotto that fairgoers entered by passing between a giant pair of spread legs. The titular (no pun intended) ladies are models employed as topless mermaids; Reich has them jealously fighting for Dalí’s attention even as they acknowledge that he’s awfully creepy.
In a hilarious performance seemingly inspired by Johnny Depp’s portrayal of bizarrely bad filmmaker Ed Wood in the Tim Burton biopic, Jon Mac Cole plays Dalí as a man who comes across as mysterious and profound only because he can’t quite figure out how to engage with ordinary people. “I do whatever I want, all the time!” barks Cole in a manner that makes clear just how paralyzing that kind of untrammeled licentiousness can be. When Mark Rehani wanders in as an idealistic Nazi looking for the Socialist Pavilion, it becomes frustratingly clear to the mermaids (Kait Sergenian, Katie Melby, and Reich herself) that Dalí seems equally stimulated by their breasts, the Nazi’s penis, and the rubber fish Dalí occasionally carries in his mouth.
Liquid Ladies is a tremendously enjoyable romp, but impressively, Reich manages to actually engage the premise of surrealism generally and Dalí’s pavilion specifically. If we acknowledge that we like looking at naked ladies, is that a profound insight into the psyche or is it just stating a fact that’s plainly obvious to everyone from Dalí’s mermaids to the models for less pretentious peepshows?
Even if its second half is much more successful than its first, Dalí-DADA is a wonderful manifestation of the gloriously anarchic independent spirit Bedlam represents. At the intermission of the performance I attended, a bottle of merlot was awarded to a man randomly selected from among those who had joined Bedlam’s mailing list. The Bedlam staff uncorked the bottle, and the winner walked among the audience filling glasses; as the lights went down, the bottle was being freely passed up and down the rows, with everyone taking a swig. See if that happens at the Kushner Celebration.
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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