It’s lonely at the top

TAmy Danielson there’s escapism, and then there’s escapism for people who can’t stand escapism.” During a Sunday afternoon interview at the West Bank’s Hard Times Café, theater artist John Francis Bueche explains the essence of Bedlam Theatre’s work. “Sometimes we describe it as shamelessly American hyperrealism.” Bueche’s latest playwriting and directing project at the Bedlam, “Top of the Heap” reaffirms these descriptions as politics and philosophy are told through humor, song and sprouting flower puppet.

More than 10 years ago, Bueche began writing “Top of the Heap” as a project during his senior year at Macalester College which fulfilled requirements for two classes -playwriting and philosophy of western political thought. These two disciplines flow together so well for Bueche, it seems impossible for him to think about one without the other. He talks constantly about layers of meaning and layers of expression in his representation of ideas. From the characters to the diorama-style set, every element of “Top of the Heap” exhibits this intended multilayered effect in an effort to create an all-encompassing theatrical experience that completely engrosses the audience.

On the surface, “Top of the Heap” is a play about a girl with a “mild obsession for gardening.” Her name is Biff (played by a playful and pensive Sarah Garner), and she lives in a little house at the top of a hill with her fad-following brother, Happy (Leigh Combs). Flower puppets spring from the ingenious, fairytale-like cardboard set by Julian McFaul as Biff runs about watering them. Soon, however, her beloved vegetation will be threatened by the Garden Police (Tom Snell and Andrew Wagner). Their warning, “Mow or be mowed,” inspires Biff to fight back with the support of her earthy spirit friends Thelma (Bianca Pettis) and Louise (Maren Ward). However, the Garden Police are backed by City Hall legislators Mutt and Jeff (also Tom Snell and Andrew Wagner) and two enigmatic characters born from the clouds, Stanley and Oliver (Corrie Zoll and Mike Harris).

At one level, it is a story about a girl fighting for her right to garden. “You can’t just go around havin’ your own concept of beauty,” Happy sarcastically advises. But it is precisely this subjective appreciation of beauty she is fighting to uphold. “Gardens will rule the world, you’ll see,” she declares in a speech when she becomes President of Everywherica. In some ways, the play is bright and colorful – the bold colors of the set and costumes reflect the personalities of the nature-loving characters and the play’s overall optimism. But other parts are dark and disturbing, like the fate of Stanley and Oliver, who wake up one day buried in the earth, their bodies encased in the soil they fought against. A presidential address by Biff’s oppressive predecessor haunts us with its rhetoric as well as its timeliness. His jargon-laden speech was written by Bueche ten years ago, but its crux is as familiar now as it was then. Speaking strictly in metaphor, the former president promises to wash the dirt of Everywherica away with the suds of his administration until all that is unclean swirls down the drain.

At times, “Top of the Heap” is overtly political, but its messages are neither preachy nor condescending. They are, rather, uplifting and hopeful and always filtered through an artistic lens. Bueche is definitely enamored with words, as evidenced by his dialogue’s philosophical bent and witty turns. His words are colored with metaphor and loaded with significance beyond their literal conceptions. However, he never discounts the power of representation as a method of communication. It often resonates louder than narration, as when nature finds justice in walling up its villains in the play’s final scene. Louise, the spirit who erupts from the earth, is another example of stepping outside of language’s box, as she speaks mostly in action verbs, giving direction to Biff and Happy while representing a cultural shift – “a conscious move to break out of the mold,” according to Bueche. Ward plays Louise with brazen embodiment of her character, spewing out each demand with desperation of someone who isn’t being heard.

In the end, “Top of the Heap” is a play about lost innocence. We’ve heard many times in the past that America has lost its innocence. But how can we lose something that we never really had?

“Top of the Heap” plays through April 26 at Bedlam Studio,
(612) 341-1038

Amy Danielson welcomes comments at [email protected]