Whooping it up in `Des Moines’

Campo Santo, Denis Johnson go a little crazy in Iowa
Three and 1/2 stars Comic, dramatic depth charge

There’s a lot of wonderful weirdness in Denis Johnson’s Des Moines.

The play had its brief, three-performance world premiere last weekend, not at Intersection for the Arts, the usual home for Campo Santo works. This season is all about breaking patterns and trying new things (the slogan is: “New Definitions of Theatre, Don’t Let the Evolution Happen Without You”).

So Des Moines unfolded in the warehouse-y confines of artist John Gruenwald’s Gruenwald Press, a South of Market spot that required audience members to ride a freight elevator one floor up to the show.

Before the show began, the audience mingled in the space – crowded with a variety of sofas, stools, chair and pillows on the floor – partaking of the hors d’oeuvres buffet and the open bar while the Howard Wiley Duo played some smoky jazz in the corner by the windows.

Once settled into the hodgepodge of seats, the audience trained its attention on Leslie Linnebur and Joshua McDermott’s set: an average kitchen in Des Moines, Iowa. The one thing this kitchen had that kitchens in Iowa most likely do not: audience members seated in it.

And at Sunday’s performance – closing night – author Johnson was seated in the kitchen, so we had the pleasure of watching the play and watching the playwright watch the play (he liked it, he really liked it).

With each new play, starting with 1999’s Hellhound on My Trail through 2004’s Psychos Never Dream, Johnson seems to rattle the theatrical cage even more.

Des Moines is a curious work. It begins in complete naturalism as husband and wife Dan (Luis Saguar, above right) and Marta (Jeri Lynn Cohen) deal with everyday things, like Dan’s loathing of margarine. He lectures Marta that “oleo” means “made of oil.” She’s heard it all before, which is why she buys butter. “You like it. I got it. Now eat it. I love you,” she says.

From the first, this 85-minute “exploration of the damaged American soul,” as the program puts it, obsesses over mortality. Dan had a passenger in his cab, a woman recently widowed when her husband died in a plane crash, and she was obsessed with finding out her husband’s last words and thought maybe the cabbie could provide them.

Turns out the husband was a step ahead of her and had put a note in his pocket that read: “If I die now, my last words were: Orange juice, please.” Then, for some strange reason, the widow left her husband’s wedding ring in the cab.

Back in the kitchen, Marta announces she has some news and one of the local priests, Father Michael (Cully Fredricksen), is coming over. When Marta tells Dan that she has between two and four months to live, she turns to the priest for guidance and comfort.

“There’s very little to say,” he says.

“But to have a priest say it is something,” Marta says.

Desperation, mortality and the need for meaning and release flood into the kitchen, and that’s just the start. The priest is a cross-dresser, and Dan and Marta’s grandson, Jimmy (Max Gordon Moore), was paralyzed during the waist down during his sex-change operation.

While Dan and Marta are out buying beer and whiskey to make depth charges (shot glass full of whiskey dropped into a glass of beer, aka a boilermaker), the widow, Mrs. Drinkwater (Margo Hall, above left) shows up to reclaim her husband’s wedding ring.

What she finds is Jimmy in his wheelchair wearing a tight ‘70s dress, full makeup, Jackie O sunglasses and long brunette wig, and Father Michael wearing rouge, eye shadow and lipstick.

The priest, the transsexual and the widow get a head start on the depth charges, so when Dan and Marta return, the party is in full swing. Next thing you know, the karaoke machine is on (terrific sound design by Gustavo Pastre and Drew Yerys), and Jimmy is singing “Folsom Prison Blues,” the priest recites a dramatic monologue to “Love Me Tender” and the widow gets down and dirty to “Kansas City.”

Then the weirdness starts, and I’m not talking about Marta screaming, “The widow is a whore! The black widow is a whore!”

Director Jonathan Moscone doesn’t usually traffic in onstage weirdness, and that’s a strength here. When Johnson’s text veers out of naturalism and into dream chaos, Moscone’s firm hand — and the good will he has established with the audience through strong direction and excellent performances – keeps the play from spinning into self-indulgent whimsy and tragedy.

Events in the last scenes of the play may be inscrutable, but we’ve come to like this odd assortment of people so conveniently thrown together for a collective dark night of the soul.

Des Moines hasn’t quite found its ending yet, but the play leaves its audience with an electrical charge that crackles with humor, mortality and the need for community – in a depth charge, Iowa sort of way.

For more on Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo’s fall 2007 events visit www.theintersection.org.

Campo Santo, Johnson together again

Campo Santo, the small theater company with major literary impact, is not doing a traditional season.

Sean San Jose, Campo Santo founder, and Deborah Cullinan, executive director of Intersection for the Arts, describe this offbeat season as a “search for the most exciting and bold new theatrical constructs.”

The season includes three world-premiere plays by some literary heavyweights, but each premiere lasts a limited time.

First up is Denis Johnson’s Des Moines, which opens Oct. 19 and closes Oct. 21. That’s right, three performances only. And guess what? The shows were sold out before rehearsals even began.

That’s what Johnson’s name can do, and that’s only speaking of him as the playwright of such extraordinary work as The Soul of a Whore, a previous Campo Santo-Intersection collaboration. Never mind that last week Johnson (above) was nominated for a National Book Award for his epic Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke. People around here love Johnson as a playwright (OK, as a novelist, short-story writer and all-around great guy, too).

The tag-line for Des Moines is: “Come to a party…where a play breaks out!” And that’s pretty much what happens. Ticket buyers are given a super-secret location in San Francisco. They show up and take part in a cocktail party — complete with live music and cocktails — and the play sort of unfolds around them. Attendees can expect to meet a cabbie, a devout grandmother, a grieving widow and a cross-dressing priest among others as they randomly collide at a cocktail party in the Mission District and a small house in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, directs a cast that includes Jeri Lynn Cohen, Cully Fredericksen (below), Margo Hall, Max Gordon Moore and Luis Saguar.

If you’re intent on getting into Des Moines (and who could blame you?), you can put your name on the waiting list by e-mailing reservations@theintersection.org.

But wait, there’s more!

And because one new Johnson play is never as good as two new Johnson plays, Campo Santo and Intersection are premiering another one: Everything Has Been Arranged, a collaboration with Southern Exposure (an artist-run contemporary-arts and arts-education group) based on Johnson’s story “The Small Boys’ Unit,” about civil wars in Liberia, from his book Seek.

San Jose directs the show, which is part of Grounded?, a series of juried projects at Intersection that includes new visual art, public intervention, performance and media in search of physical, personal, social, political and creative ground.

Everything Has Been Arranged is only being performed three times: Dec. 6, 7 and 8 at Intersection. The evenings will also include performances of unpublished interviews on the Sudan civil wars culled from the newest publishing imprint from McSweeney’s, Voice of Witness.

Also part of Grounded? is Vendela Vida’s new theater piece, let the northern lights erase your name, directed by Danny Scheie. The piece is from Vida’s novel of the same name, which one reviewer described as walking “a very fine line between high-camp comedy and lyrical seriousness.”

let the northern lights erase your name will be performed Dec. 13, 14 and 15 at Intersection.

For a complete listing of Grounded? events, call 415-626-3311 or visit www.theintersection.org.