This August, I saw my first-ever show at the Brave New Workshop, and I found that for the most part the show took safe jabs at easy targets. Then, in the lobby after the show, I met a man who had been attending shows for the company’s entire five-decade history. He was thrilled. “It’s great,” he said, “how daring they can be these days!” Times have, indeed, changed.
Dudley: Rigged for Laughter, now playing at the History Theatre, provides some helpful historical context. In the beginning, writers Caleb McEwan, Dane Stauffer, and John Sweeney argue, the Brave New Workshop was a beacon of clear-eyed secular intelligence in a cold, conservative, and Catholic Minnesotan climate. The vice squad made a regular target of founder Dudley Riggs, bricks were thrown through the workshop windows, and the forward-thinking young people of Uptown poured out of the pews and into the theater.
|dudley: rigged for laughter, presented at the history theatre through october 24. for tickets ($28-$32) and information, see historytheatre.com.|
The show’s account of the BNW’s revolutionary nature seems a bit exaggerated—after all, as the show informs us, Riggs comes from circus people—but what do I know? All the really interesting stuff happened before I even filled my first diaper. Things were undoubtedly very different in the BNW’s early years than they are today, and if the company’s current shows seem less than scandalous, it may be because Riggs has lost by winning. In a world where The Daily Show is one of the most-watched and most-trusted national news sources, the BNW’s satirical sketch comedy just doesn’t feel as daring as it once did.
At any rate, Rigged for Laughter is an entertaining show that tells the interesting story of Dudley Riggs, who had more adventures before age 20 than the average subdivision resident would experience in a dozen lifetimes. The first half of the show runs through the highlights of Riggs’s early life, and the second half tells the story of the Brave New Workshop, which Riggs established in Minneapolis in 1958. Directors McEwan and Ron Peluso stage the play in sketch-comedy style, which is appropriate and showcases the talents of the four-person ensemble (Shanan Custer, Paul de Cordova, Matt Erkel, and Michelle Hutchison) led by Joseph Scrimshaw as Riggs.
The danger of hiring Joseph Scrimshaw as an actor is that he’s one of the sharpest writers in town, and longtime Scrimshaw fans will find themselves dying to know what he’s thinking and not saying up there as he stands implacably smiling in Riggs’s trademark bowtie and suspenders. (“I take off the jacket,” Scrimshaw tweeted, “& instantly become Orville Redenbacher.”) Sure enough, when the show took a break designated to demonstrate the art of improv comedy, Friday night’s audience lit up like a road flare. When an audience member completed the sentence, “My wife and I went back to the hotel room and…” with “did it again,” Scrimshaw thought for a second and mused, “The structure of that sentence would imply that we went back to the hotel room, and then, additionally, went back to the hotel room once again.”
The show concluded with a “history of terror” sketch meant to demonstrate the BNW’s style; it was sharper than most of the material I saw this summer at the workshop itself, but like that material, it succeeded more on the strength of the performers’ charisma than on the strength of the writing, which—except for a moderately provocative Obama jab—came nowhere near really surprising or offending anyone. Still, even if the Brave New Workshop’s bravery is less new than it once was, Rigged for Laughter makes a compelling argument that the Twin Cities have been very lucky to have enjoyed so many decades with the company’s iconoclastic founder.