Spirits with Dirty Faces

Nathan Hall

I don’t want you to get mauled,” she explains as she ushers me to be seated on a 1950s Arco-deco style black leather couch located safely away from the ensuing chaos. Colleen Felicia Van Epps, 21, a senior in the University Theatre department, is behaving like a piñata on crystal meth, and perhaps for good reason. It is one of the first run-throughs of her directorial debut of “Melvin,” a play she wrote for Crisis Point: Theatre of Danger and Opportunity, and everything seems to be going slightly awry.

“If you are having trouble breathing or are sweating more than you should, let me know,” the clipboard-toting stage manager patiently implores her would-be phantoms. “Spirits don’t have snot running down their faces.”

Van Epps, clad in form-fitting brown corduroys, well-worn black sneakers, and a T-shirt that exposes a jewelry-encrusted navel piercing, waves her arms around frantically and appears on the verge of tearing out her carefully braided blonde hair.

Lights are set up and fabric is cut into strips to be employed as substitute confetti as two players plop themselves down on the scratched hardwood floors and goof off while they wait, discussing the striking similarities between “The Empire Strikes Back” and the collected works of Tennessee Williams. One suspenders-sporting chap practices tap dancing nearby.

Van Epps appears frazzled, but her dynamic charisma is positively contagious. Her lithe frame scurries amongst the 15-person team, constantly making last minute revisions. Van Epps repeats the mantra of “just five more minutes” so often that its hollow promise begins to draw comparisons to a Five Year Plan from the Stalin era. The leading lady applies her makeup while her on-stage (Eavy DeGreef) paramour complains that his costume looks a little too much like a Chippendale’s uniform.

The frustration and confusion plaguing Van Epps mirror the plot of “Melvin.” The play is a curious journey in self-exploration – a nonlinear ghost/mystery tale. The title character, writer Melvin Jacobs, although clinically dead, discovers through fragmented recollections of his companions and their various tribulations that he must kill his memory if his soul is to ever be at peace. Alternating between the spiritual and the physical world, the play combines elements of modern dance and earthy dialogue while ambient electronica thumps away quietly in the background. Jacobs deconstructs his emotions and transcends his pain by attempting to rebuild his identity with help from an otherworldly support group.

“So, are we ready?” Van Epps implores for the umpteenth time as curtain call stretches past bedtime. “All right, cue the Barbara Streisand. There’s the dandelion thing. We sing about wild flowers for a bit, and Iris enters!”

As the performance commences, Van Epps begins to furiously take notes as if her life depends on it. She coaches and cajoles every drop out of her mob. Sitting nervously on a couch, she is anxious about how every detail will turn out. As the night progresses, scenes get confused, lines are stumbled over, and props become forgotten casualties. “Don’t sit on the marshmallows, you’re supposed to eat them, remember?” Van Epps quips and sighs, chuckling quietly to herself.

One grandstanding actor playing a mentally disabled character loses control of the scene, adlibbing sound effects for an action figure he fishes from his pocket as the troupe erupts into fits of hysterical laughter.

Above all else, it is important to note that this is a close-knit group of friends creating something unique and new. “This truly is a run-through,” Van Epps admits with a grin. To an outside observer, she may seem like she is partly making it up as she goes along, but then again, so are all of us.

“Melvin” plays through Nov. 24 at Rogue Buddha Art Gallery, (612) 331-3889.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]