The hunt for Frank Theatreby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
A Minneapolis theater company has taken over an abandoned building to bring its latest play to audiences. Frank Theatre is staging Bertolt Brecht's "Mr. Puntila and his hired man Matti," a comic look at class warfare. Once the run of the show is over, the building will be destroyed.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Frank Theater Artistic Director Wendy Knox switches on the industrial lights and heaters in a shoebox of a building, in a public works yard owned and operated by the city of Minneapolis. Soon the space is rattling, roaring and buzzing.
The noise isn't a problem for her show. By the time the play starts, the room will be warm, the heaters will be turned off and the main lights will be replaced with much quieter stage lighting.
Knox said she first heard about the building from the city Cultural Affairs office when she was looking for a place to stage her next play.
"We walked in, saying, 'Look, there's heat! Sort of,'" laughed Knox. "It's small and cozy and it's cleaner than some of the spaces we've been in. So why not? As soon as the show closes, the building gets torn down, but it's great we got a chance in here."
Knox said some plays aren't suited to industrial spaces. She can't imagine, for example, that "The Importance of Being Earnest" would gain anything from being set in a factory or abandoned warehouse.
But German playwright Bertolt Brecht, she said, wanted his plays to be treated as a spectator sport. Knox thinks their exaggerated clowning lend themselves to a setting which constantly reminds the viewer that this is not real.
Bertolt Brecht believed that theater should be a forum for political ideas. As a Marxist, Brecht wrote plays for the working class. He's best known for "Mother Courage and Her Children," "Three Penny Opera" and "The Good Person of Sezchuan."
In "Mr. Puntila and his hired man Matti," a landowner. Mr Puntila, is a man of the people when he's drunk. But all that changes when he has, as he calls them, "attacks of sobriety."
Puntila's chauffeur, Matti, is at turns praised and cursed by his boss, depending on Puntila's blood alcohol level.
The show is characteristic of Brecht's preoccupation with class struggle. It extolls the patience of the working man, while condemning the inconsistent and childish demands of the wealthy employer.
Knox said the building underscores the tone of the play. Since it's slated for demolition, she and her crew have had free run of the place to change it as they see fit.
Garage doors have been painted with birch trees and lights hung from the rafters. Sometimes characters run outside the building and bang on doors. There are no wings, so actors who aren't on stage sit on the sides and watch along with the audience.
The technique was entertaining enough to two of the younger members of the audience, 13-year-old Thomas Gedion and 12-year-old Jack Larson.
"It was really funny," said Gedion.
"It was like life lessons, sort of," said Larson.
"It makes me not want to grow up because of all the work!" laughed Gedion.
"Mr Puntila and his hired man Matti" runs through April 13 at the corner of Longfellow and 29th in south Minneapolis.
Frank Theatre has developed a reputation for staging plays in unusual locations. Knox directed Brecht's "Mother Courage and her Children" at the Pillsbury A-Mill building, and "The Cradle will Rock" at the old Sears building before it was converted into Midtown Global Market and condominiums.
Knox said her audiences have become used to going on quests to find her latest venue.
"It's kind of a treasure hunt," said Knox. "It's been very fun with some of our adventures, going into historically significant buildings. A lot of our audience has been intrigued. 'Where are they going to be now?' As a director, it's also fabulous to have a different canvas or a different pallet every time we do a show like this."
Some might assume Knox saves money by mounting productions in abandoned buildings. But, she said, the cost of creating her own stage, bleachers and lighting often makes up the difference.
In fact, the process has given her a new appreciation for small theaters with nice bathrooms, built-in seating and a sign out front.
- All Things Considered, 03/24/2008, 6:20 p.m.