It’s the Mann Show

by Nathan Hall

Face it. Watching a one-man show inevitably tends to be a tad surreal. Unless the individual on stage is overwhelmingly enthralling, entertaining and endearing, you are basically stuck with a chaotic stand-up comedy act, the performer frantically sawing away at your attention like the borderline psychotic Dick Van Dyke character of Bert from “Mary Poppins.” Luckily for David Mann, his wry Uptown apartment observations on suburban academia eventually win you over in his latest solo effort, “Revelations of Mann.”

Fringe Festival veteran Mann is no newcomer to the solo-arts genre. He portrayed John Lennon in “Glass Onion,” impersonated the dark prince in “Lucifer,” and spilled the beans on his dirty laundry in “Sex with David Mann,” all by his lonesome in each production. Although he is a lonely figure on the spacious Great American History Theatre stage, he makes himself believably busy, banging on props while recounting the tale of his first real job. Fresh out of Northwestern graduate school and burdened by crushing student loans, he took a drama teaching gig at a strict Catholic school named Kingdom, Power and the Glory High School. Surprisingly, he ended up staying for four years.

Despite adamantly declaring his intention to remain a backslidden Lutheran, things do not turn out nearly as badly as he imagined. In spite of his initial prissy reservations, he learns how to build scenery by watching the parents with a background in construction.

He compromises on more avant-garde productions in favor of the recognizable names with enormous casts like “Annie” in order to please his constituents.

He compromises his lofty artistic vision to help his kids win the state drama competitions.

In short, he grows up a bit.

Lutheran situation comedy is lefse-and-butter fare for Minnesota comedy standards like “Prairie Home Companion,” so it is odd to hear the semi-edgy Mann plow through “Hail Mary!” gags and “no food or drink in the classroom” riffs. There are certainly some knee-slappers though – most notably the one about the broken fog machine stuck in the “on” position during “A Christmas Carol.” One would have expected him to throw in an Ole and Lena joke just for spite, but it was not to be.

Thankfully, Mann redeems himself in the second act with a dead-on recreation of a first casting call for “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” in a small town. Tears welled up during his hilarious take on the hauntingly recognizable character from my own childhood dabbling in high school shows. Unpleasant memories of wannabe Lolitas and meathead jocks came rushing back whether I wanted them to or not. The scene’s dialogue manages to capture every nuance and Beavis-like chuckle at a Zen level of perfection.

This is an incredibly personal coming of age story for Mann, so it is not surprising that in recent interviews the actor has admitted fudging a bit on the exact details. By changing the name of the school and principal players, he is free to make everything larger than life. But for the most part he just sticks to the facts. And in this instance truth is funnier than fiction. Mann repeatedly claims that teaching is a life changing experience. Now, putting his money where his mouth is, he leads Schools on Stage, a residency program that brings Guthrie artists into local high schools.

The notion that meaning finds us rather than us finding it is by no means an original thought. Nevertheless, Mann manages to resurrect dated themes with a fresh voice and unique perspective. You could easily forget that your new friend’s elaborate story took over two hours to tell.

“Revelations of Mann” plays through Feb. 8 at the Great American History Theatre, (651) 292-4323.