Brand new spuds

Sentient starch takes the spotlight in Sibyl Kempson’s odd examination of what’s beyond the physical world and the possibilities of theater.

Potatoes come to life and paradigms shift in Sibyl Kempsons Potatoes of August.

Liz Josheff

Potatoes come to life and paradigms shift in Sibyl Kempson’s “Potatoes of August.”

by Joe Kellen

A burlap sack full of big brown Boise potatoes isn’t average fodder for an evening of theater.

But when the contents of that straw-colored bag grow minds of their own, it makes for an enticing oddity. Okay — maybe this sounds like the logline for the B-reel horror flick of the century, but it’s also the thematic center of envelope-pushing playwright Sibyl Kempson’s work, “Potatoes of August.”

“It struck me, when I read the play, that it was related to our relationship with the physical world. The play raises the question of what is known in the universe,” director Steve Busa said. “How much confidence can we have in what we think we know?”

The play focuses on four retirees whose mundane lives are interrupted when they encounter sentient potatoes.

It only gets more surreal from there — these potatoes seem to be omniscient and may or may not be up to no good. As the supernatural begins to overtake the retirees’ lives, the characters question everything from their personal relationships to the contours of existence.

Full of musical numbers — Kempson’s play makes use of music from composer Johannes Kepler along with other classical artists — and with an unwavering dedication to the absurd, “Potatoes of August” refuses to give audiences material that’s easy to digest.

 “I love where her mind goes,” Busa said of Kempson. “She explores this illusion-versus-reality concept that makes sense to me.”

Busa said that seemingly “impossible” plays are keeping theater alive. He believes that the challenges they put forth force artists and audiences to think more creatively and potentially discover aspects of the medium that they never knew were possible.

“The limits are sort of exploded,” Kempson said. “You can’t write something that’s impossible to do on the stage because there’s always a way to do it.”

Kempson said she isn’t interested in the notion of an “intelligent” play. “Potatoes of August” deals with heady concepts by embracing the ridiculous — a tactic that Kempson uses to separate philosophical notions from the loftiness attached to them.

“They’re not that far beyond any of us. Those ideas came from people who just took the time to be interested,” she said. “I love that it’s so stupid and these four people have to deal with it in their separate ways.”

Busa and company took Kempson’s unorthodox approach and ran with it, using all-brown, tastefully saggy costuming for their potatoes and projections to set the backdrop for their world on stage. On the whole, this production of “Potatoes” seeks to unapologetically investigate the weird and unknowable, all with a kooky smile on its face.

“I don’t like rules,” Kempson said. “Unless they’re acting as something to push against.”

 

What: “Potatoes of August”
When: 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. April 11-27
Where: Red Eye Theater, 15 W. 14th St., Minneapolis
Cost: $8-30