A couple of times in The House Can’t Stand, Steve Epp’s unnamed female character refers affectionately to the couch often occupied by her late husband: a charming but worn old thing that sags conspicuously in the middle where the man of the house formerly rested his corpulent frame. The whole show is a bit like that couch: it’s hard not to feel tenderly towards, even though it sags in the middle under the weight of a grand historical allegory.
The Southern Theater was almost entirely sold out on Thursday night for the opening of The House Can’t Stand, the much-anticipated return of Theatre de la Jeune Lune artistic principals Dominique Serrand (who directs the show) and Steve Epp, who wrote the show and serves as its sole performer. It’s at the Southern Theater for a four-performance run ending on Sunday.
For the theater to be packed full of people for a show about which little had been revealed and for which there had been little publicity meant that almost everyone was there on the strength of Epp’s and Serrand’s reputations; indeed, the crowd was audibly delighted to see Epp step on stage, laughing affectionately at his wig, purse, and blue dress with matching pumps. The stage is initially set as a house, though with minimal props; Serrand and set assistant Annie Katsura Rollins make excellent use of video projections to transport Epp through the play’s various settings, beginning with his character’s humble home.
|the house can’t stand, playing through october 25 at the southern theater. for tickets ($27) and information, see southerntheater.org.|
For the first thirty minutes or so, Epp walks around his kitchen, talking first to himself and then on the phone to a caller of ambiguous motive. On Thursday, Epp had the audience eating from his hand as he enacted an uneventful evening in the life of his sixtyish character. She makes a sandwich for her absent husband, muses on politics, and confides—in these words—that she really needs to get laid. Eventually, she agrees to meet her caller at a theater and drives off into the night.
She gets sidetracked on her way to the theater, and it’s here that the play reveals its deeper purpose: as Epp wanders, dazed and lost, through the countryside, he travels (whether in his character’s own addled mind or in the fantasy world of the play is an interesting but only academically relevant question) backwards through American history, ultimately encountering a historical figure for whom his character’s theater date becomes a date with destiny—but not before Epp’s character finally has her carnal desires satisfied. In the end, Epp experiences a metamorphosis that may be taken literally, may represent his character’s death, or may represent a different character entirely; but in any respect, has profound significance with respect to the the play’s themes regarding the History of the American Nation. (Did I mention there’s a Shakespeare allegory as well?)
It’s an incredibly dense, rich piece of work that is superbly enacted by the tireless Epp—with no intermission. Epp’s ambition is staggering, and in fact the production does stagger as that ambition becomes manifest. Having won our sympathy with his endearing character, Epp allows the play to be stolen from her: a theft that he seems to acknowledge in the way that his character continually spouts lengthy quotations from Shakespeare and other sources, immediately afterward expressing befuddlement at “the things that are in my head!” Exactly. Those things are not in Epp’s character’s head, they’re in Epp’s head, and while the tension between Epp as scholar and Epp as performer is undoubtedly interesting, it doesn’t play very compellingly from a dramatic standpoint.
That said, Epp and Serrand are such wizards of the stage, and so visibly happy to be back on it, that the play is more than worth seeing. Epp has been working on the script for years—I’ve been told that at one point it was being considered for production with an actual woman in the role that ultimately went to Epp himself—and Epp’s confidence with the material is astonishing for a debut production. Epp seems as comfortable with his script as Chazz Palminteri, who’s been performing A Bronx Tale for 20 years, does with his. Serrand’s direction is similarly confident: under his nimble touch, a very simple set becomes an entire world.
Though their approach is sometimes ponderous, it’s appropriate that Epp and Serrand are concerned with matters of history. Jeune Lune was the second-most important company in the history of Minnesota theater, and whatever the ultimate causes of the its demise (some observers feel its wounds were largely self-inflicted), its leaders’ return to the local stage is in itself historic. The importance of Jeune Lune as a beacon to adventurous younger artists can hardly be overstated, and the talent and passion of Epp and Serrand is every bit as evident in this chamber production as it was on the towering Jeune Lune stage.