Coffee-shop savants

‘Artist in Trouble’ picks up on the absurdity of the aesthetic life

by Erin Adler

Theater producers Lola Lesheim and Harrison Matthews are making a mockery of the Twin Cities art scene.

And they’re not afraid of getting in trouble.

In fact, the topsy-turvy artistic life is the subject of their parody of a play, “Artist in Trouble.” The “rock ‘n’ roll musical comedy,” centers on the existence of Mortimer Willowallow Hopper, an impoverished, subpar artist on the margin of fame and financial stability. It mocks artists and the art community, a category that includes Lesheim and Matthews.

“The show is cartoonish – we don’t pretend it’s serious,” said Matthews, the playwright and co-producer. “We’re not trying to teach a lesson, and there’s no rational thing you learn from the show. Good theater is about the emotional experience.”

Fellow co-producer Lesheim agreed. “We like to say, ‘If you hate musical theater, you’ll love this play.’ It’s a relief not to take ourselves too seriously,” she said.

The two, who can’t decide exactly how long they’ve known each other, are decidedly not representative of the pretentious attitude “Artist in Trouble” pokes fun at. They drink beer in the afternoon, break into songs from the play at random and admit to having met after posing as art models for $10 an hour years earlier.

“There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to the show; it’s a comic strip of the Minneapolis art scene, without picking on anyone in particular,” Lesheim said. She cited “mockumentaries” such as “Waiting for Guffman” as inspiration, as well as the life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar, as represented in the film “American Splendor.”

Matthews said he was inspired by the lives of people he knew. “I’ve known a lot of visual artists, and I’ve always liked them a lot. This play is a humorous look at that life,” he said.

“Artist in Trouble” began as a “workshopping piece” more than two years ago at the now-closed DiStillo Gallery, with Matthews and Lesheim as producers. The show received positive reviews from Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune, despite the stress the cast performed under – the gallery was constantly in danger of being shut down.

“It was ironic then that we were artists trying to save this gallery, a situation that also occurs in the play,” Lesheim said.

When they agreed to produce an updated, “fully realized” version of the show this spring, they had trouble on their hands again; the Varsity Theater’s opening was put on hold because of building-code issues. The cast continued to rehearse while the necessary construction was done.

The Varsity Theater officially opens today, as does “Artist in Trouble.”

“We’re ready to have people come and see us do this,” said Shad Cooper, who plays the lead role of Hopper. Cooper also acted as an understudy for the Hopper character in the DiStillo Gallery production.

Cooper calls Hopper’s character an “everyman” figure and said he identifies with the life of a starving artist.

“(Like Hopper), I know what it’s like to live on beans, and rice, and rum, to be late on rent and to enter a profession without a guaranteed financial reward,” he said.

Many of the cast of 15 had little or no musical theater experience before this show, Lesheim said.

The challenge of mastering the original songs became one of Lesheim’s favorite parts of putting on the show, she said.

“It’s a great musical comedy. The audience will find that they can’t get the songs out of their head,” she said.

Jason McLean, Varsity Theater’s owner, is ready to see “Artist in Trouble” open, as the theater was always “intended to serve live theater and music,” he said.

McLean called the show “frolicksome and irreverent in its lampooning of the arts culture.”

“It has a nice sarcastic edge to it,” he said, seeming to appreciate, rather than dislike, a show one might see as mocking him and his livelihood. In the show, McLean’s The Loring Pasta Bar is called “The Boryurassoff Bohemian Cafe.”

Lesheim explains the mocking references to the art world can actually be seen as positive. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” she said.

Cooper echoes the sentiment.

“We only have a sense of humor about art because we want more of it,” he said.