Everything’s coming up Odin

Amy Danielson

In this age of mindless entertainment, much of which flaunts indistinct humor as superior, it is refreshing to witness the rare and rich comedy of one of the most unique characters in the Twin Cities.

The opulent personality behind this bold humor is Ari Hoptman. Known primarily in the theater scene for his outlandish style of storytelling, the lesser-known side of Hoptman is equally interesting. Currently, he teaches German at the University of Minnesota and contributes to the development of an etymological dictionary, all the while scrambling to finish his dissertation.

But beyond this academic workaday world, Hoptman has ambitions as a playwright ñ indeed, the Fifty Foot Penguin theater company has just opened his first play. Hoptman’s love of Nordic poetry and mythology inspired this production, titled I Married Odin, and hours of tedious work at a job during the summer of 1995 gave the opportunistic Hoptman the necessary free time to initiate the project instead of wallowing in his weariness.

This is Hoptman’s first show in which he doesn’t appear onstage, and it is a bit strange to see his humor performed by others ñ those who are familiar with him as a stand-up comic cannot help but imagine Hoptman himself delivering his ingenious, smart-alecky dialogue.

Fortunately Hoptman has left his play in the capable hands of longtime collaborator Zack Curtis, who has directed Hoptman in two of his three recent theatrical appearances. Hoptman sat in on rehearsals and made suggestions. “The biggest thing I learned is that nothing is ever finished,” Hoptman told The Lens. From the initial stages of development in 1995 to a reading at the Playwrights’ Center to a new draft to Zach Curtis’ acceptance, the piece has gone through many changes. And the finished version offers much to chew on, spit out, and chew again.

Norse god Odin proves to be a character worthy of our fascination. In legend, the puissant god’s ravenous appetite for knowledge forced him to trade one of his eyes for the opportunity to swig from Yggdrasil, a sacred well filled with knowledge. Furthermore, he sliced himself with a spear and then hanged himself on the World Tree for nine nights as a sacrifice to learn magic spells. Quite a fellow.

However, this is not the Odin presented in Hoptman’s play (and played by Matthew G. Anderson). Hoptman’s god is a foul-tempered petty bureaucrat. This Odin takes phone call requests to clean-up floods in Iceland, barking orders from behind a desk that displays such items as a book of Norwegian jokes and a Magic 8-Ball.

In Hoptman’s play, Odin plans a war between the Goths and the Romans when he discovers that the Romans have given up their gods in favor of Christianity. Alas, Odin’s unloving and uninhibited wife foils his plan by hiring Loki, the god of mischief, to convert the Goths to Christianity out of pure spite for her husband.

Edwin Strout, playing Loki, prances the stage in a zoot suit and pencil-thin moustache, hard-selling other gods like one of David Mamet’s unctuous salesmen. “Don’t move and break my heart,” he gushes at a bartender who he has persuading to invest in a questionable plot of property in the distressingly named Land of the Giants. Strout epitomizes deception in this production: He is the kind of guy that can convince the Goths of the virtues of Christianity only moments after disgustedly spitting a communion wafer into a wine chalice.

I Married Odin doesn’t deviate from Hoptman’s usual brand of humor. Much like the short stories he tells in his stand-up act, it offers a virtual palimpsest of comedy. From the onset, he offers intentionally cheap jokes liberally sprinkled throughout the show, but follows them up with deeper levels of humor as the plot unwinds and characters reveal themselves.

Hoptman admitted that it is difficult to separate himself from the words while watching the actors perform. But he contended that the distance provides perspective. But this doesn’t mean that Hoptman will discontinue his unique style of one man performance. Although he may take a break from theater once this show is over to concentrate more heavily on his dissertation, in the meantime he might provide an occasional impromptu performance at Balls Cabaret, where he has worked for half a decade managing the box office.

 

I Married Odin plays through June 29 at the Cedar Riverside People’s Center, (612) 381-1110.