Build your castles in the clouds

Interact Theatre dreams true beauty in the image of the gods

Keri Carlson

Popular art and culture is obsessed with perfection. Top 40 radio plays songs with structured melodies, tight harmonies and tuned instruments. Magazines picture shiny hair, straight teeth and size 2 dresses. Perfection has come to equal beauty.

So when an art form expresses something less than perfect, it is deemed “outsider art.” This can include anything from 10 minute acid-induced guitar solos to a 4-year-old’s smudged finger painting. Many times, all it takes to be considered an

outside artist is to lack any formal training. But at the very pith of outsider art is passion and a need for self-expression. The French perhaps labeled it best by calling it “art brut” – meaning raw art – because the artists dance and sing and paint as if unaware of the rest of the world. And it results in art that is more genuine and human. It might be far from perfect, but outsider art certainly holds its own unique beauty.

The latest production from Interact Theatre, “Cloud Cuckooland,” uses outsider art to explore the beauty of imperfection. Integrating a cast of seasoned and professional actors with disabled adults, Interact seeks to challenge society’s views of disabilities while simultaneously challenging their artists. “Cuckooland” tackles the follies of humanity such as greed, power and war from a humorous angle. The text is based on Aristophanes’ Greek comedy “The Birds.” This challenge only makes the artists shine. Interact provides a creative and expressive outlet for people who are rarely heard and it brings a charming and honest quality to the play.

The updated version of “The Birds” follows the George W. Bush-inspired character Shrub, played by the hysterical Eriq Nelson. After lying and cheating through Enron scandals, Shrub is sent to Hades and returns to humanity even worse than before – shaking pom-poms and chanting “I say good, you say evil!” Because the trip down below failed to whip Shrub into shape, Zeus deports him to Cloud Cuckooland to live with the harmonious society of the birds. But Shrub only exploits their world and introduces undesirable human characteristics to the birds by means of an “American Idol”-like competition.

The birds’ scene highlights the play as the actors blissfully adapt to short, jerky head bobs – searching for worms – and graceful soaring wings. “Cloud Cuckooland” thrives on the actors’ natural quirks and personalities that leak into their characters. Mary Thomas gives Hera an attitude filled with sass. Billy Tomaszewski slyly creeps on stage as a frightening Lucifer but with a slight smile and kiss on Shrub’s cheek, leaving the audience with a warm fuzzy feeling without completely ignoring that he is the Prince of Darkness. Other performers leap and twirl in movements that are just as awkward and jolting as they are elegant and poised. But it is the squinty-eyed Richard Millwood who brings a real unexpected joy. Millwood shuffles on stage after completed scenes with a grandpa smile and angel wings and gently sweeps the stage of things like fallen bird feathers. When asked what the winged-janitor represented during a discussion after the play, artistic director Jeanne Calvit explained he was simply a poetic touch and the audience could draw their own conclusions.

To connect “Cloud Cuckooland” with its Greek roots, Calvit incorporated Greek mythology, not in Aristophanes’ original, by adding Zeus, Hera and Hephaestus. The inclusion of Hephaestus, played by Kevin Kling, takes the play full circle. Hephaestus, the son of Hera, is the only disabled god and was rejected by Hera, for not reflecting her idea of beauty. However, Hephaestus grew into one of the most important gods in Greek mythology – crafting exquisite tools and weapons, not to mention marrying Aphrodite. This gets down to the essence of “Cuckooland.” It shows that, too often, people with disabilities are given restraints and not encouraged to celebrate their differences. “Cuckooland” rejects the notion that beauty comes from perfection and instead argues it is our flaws that make us who we are and make us beautiful.

The artists in Interact prove they have something special to share with the world. They give a hearty laugh to “Cuckooland” with an overall touching and kindhearted spirit. Every actor steps out on stage unashamed to share a piece of who they are and it serves as a reminder of the importance of outsider art.

Cloud Cuckooland” through June 28 at the Mixed Blood Theatre, $8-$25, (612) 338-6131

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