Jeune Lune gets back to basicsby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
This weekend in Minneapolis, Theater de la Jeune Lune opens its new show "Fishtank." It's drawing attention in part because the company, which won a regional Tony for its innovative productions, is in a deep financial hole. After years of doing lavish operas and classical French theater, Jeune Lune is going back to its clowning roots as it tries to rebuild.
St. Paul, Minn. — Fishtank is a show that says, "How are you? I'm good. You? Good. Good. That's good."
It's four actors just playing -- with ideas, with words, with greetings.
"Comment ca va? Ca va pas mal. Et toi? Pas mal, pas mal. Ca va pas mal!"
And then they say the whole thing again in Japanese, German, Swahili and Arabic.
This is absurdist comedy, and the cast members are having fun. Their characters launch into songs complete with hand motions for reasons they don't seem to understand. Shoes just drop from the sky. People aren't even sure of their names.
"There's three guys, Jules, Jim or Harry, whichever one they want to be when they want to be a Jules, Jim or Harry," says actor Nathan Keepers. "And then there's our helper."
"Coco," says Jennifer Baldwin Peden. "Coco Savitseeripan."
Peden's singing has been the backbone of several Jeune Lune operas. Steve Epp and Nathan Keepers are both deadpan comedic actors. And Jeune Lune's Artistic Director Dominique Serrand, Buster Keaton-like, can draw a laugh with a sideways glance.
The cast says "Fishtank" is about people slightly adrift in the modern world. That may explain the giant aquarium and a big machine onstage, too. Serrand says it's about being on display.
"This one is more about four people and their humanity," Serrand says. "So there is a through line but there is no story. And the through line is those existences, those four people and their lives. It's a little bit more philosophical, I would say, but don't go looking for a big message."
But there may be an echo of history.
Another absurdist show once saved Theater de la Jeune Lune from financial ruin.
Back in the '80s, the company had just $200 left in the kitty. The four founders considered splitting the money and going their separate ways. Instead they sank it into one final show of clowning, called "Yang Zen Frogs." The name was a nod to the fact that at the time, half the company was French and half was American.
The show was a legendary success. It put Jeune Lune on a path to a national reputation for excellence, and its own theater in downtown Minneapolis.
The new theater allowed spectacular shows, but the costs upped the need for sold-out houses.
Last year, the company revealed it has a $1 million debt. After years of having four artistic directors, Serrand took sole control, and the company began trimming the budget. A hit show would really help.
"Yeah, it's a tough time," says interim manager Leah Cooper. "But we are all pretty optimistic about what could happen in the future."
Cooper guided the Minnesota Fringe Festival out of debt. Now Jeune Lune has hired her to find money to do shows, repair the building, and develop an endowment.
"Things are in crisis, but there is also this tremendous opportunity," Cooper says. "We have brought in this great team of interim staff people to work with the board of directors, and wrap up strategic planning for what the next five years will look like, which will be very different from the past. Very different from what other theaters are doing and very different from what Jeune Lune is doing."
Cooper says she wouldn't have signed on if she thought Jeune Lune was about to close.
Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce says hiring Cooper was a very smart move. Now he says the company needs to re-establish its brand.
He says "Fishtank" could reintroduce audiences to the antic craziness which drew the early Jeune Lune crowds. It could also attract new, younger audiences. The company has been posting videos on YouTube and offering cheaper tickets for people under 25.
Still, Royce says Jeune Lune's future is uncertain.
"Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life. Something is fresh only once," Royce says. "And yet we are all about rebirth stories, we are all about redemption, we are all about the sense that somebody has come back off the canvas and scored a knockout."
After the "Fishtank" run, Jeune Lune heads to San Francisco to do "Figaro." It will then return to begin work on an as yet unannounced project for the fall.
Dominique Serrand will only say it'll be really big.
- Morning Edition, 02/15/2008, 6:50 a.m.