MINNEAPOLIS — Franco-American relations may be at a historical low, but for Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune, this year’s Tony Award winner for best regional theater, the creative collision of French and American styles has proved to be le beau marriage.
Fittingly, Jeune Lune began with a bona fide cross-cultural romance. In the 1970s, Minneapolis-born actor Barbra Berlovitz and Parisian actor Dominique Serrand toured France and the U.S. in a two-person show staged by Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. A relationship between the two fizzled, but an enduring artistic partnership was born. Along with Robert Rosen, a childhood friend of Berlovitz, and Vincent Gracieux, Serrand’s fellow Parisian, they studied at Jacques Lecoq, the Paris school of mime.
Founding their own company with a 1978 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the ambitious foursome spent seven years peregrinating between France and the Midwest before settling into their current home, a 500-seat converted warehouse space in Minneapolis’ riverfront district. A fifth member, Steven Epp, joined the group in 1983.
While the Loons (as they’re affectionately known locally) have steadily become a Minneapolis institution, they’ve retained some of the peripatetic tendencies from their days of doing street performances in France.
Touring and collaborating with artists from outside the company remain important aspects of the company’s programming. In fact, Jeune Lune made its first visit to Off Broadway two years ago with a spare, stylized production of “Hamlet.”
Given the company’s relatively modest $1.7 million annual budget, the rate at which the Loons churn out fresh work for the road seems all the more impressive.
Despite an unusual collective creative process — officially, Jeune Lune has five artistic directors — the company has maintained a remarkably cohesive artistic vision.
Lecoq’s physical, highly visual style of theater is a constant point of reference in Jeune Lune’s re-imaginings of canonical classics from Moliere, Shakespeare and D’Artagnan. The trademark Jeune Lune style features sumptuous and inventive mise en scene, along with comic acting that references everything from Charlie Chaplin to Marcel Marceau to commedia dell’arte.
Witty clowning may be Jeune Lune’s stock in trade, but befitting a company named after a Brecht quote, the Loons have a contrarian streak as well, often surprising audiences with lavish, large-scale historical epics, fast and loose opera adaptations and dramatic chamber pieces.
One particularly memorable recent example of the latter is “The Golem,” a somber meditation on exile first produced in 1999 and revived to acclaim last season. Among Jeune Lune’s most ambitious company-created works was 1997’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” a massive two-part exploration of the American soul that was four years in gestation.
Such fearless and restless ambition can only have a salutary effect on other Twin Cities companies, according to Peter Brosius, artistic director of the Children’s Theater Company, which won the regional Tony in 2003.
“It’s inspiring to watch how they work as a collective, how that model of an ensemble functions to generate new work,” Brosius says. “Obviously, it was the unique energy of CTC that brought me here (to the Twin Cities), but to have critical thinkers and artists like the Loons working here, that’s a huge thing.”
That local theater companies have won two Tonys in three years suggests just how vibrant a theater scene Jeune Lune has helped create.
“One more and we have Chicago beat,” Brosius notes. “Not that I’m competitive or anything.”