In 2004 site-specific company Skewed Visions staged “The City Itself,” a trilogy of multimedia works spanning several weeks that included a neighborhood walking tour, occupation of a two-story house and a series of short works that took place in moving cars. It was a startling and invigorating expression of imaginative possibility. The company’s follow-up, “Days & Nights,” is equally rewarding.
This production takes place in a long-dormant office building across from the Grain Belt Brewery in northeast Minneapolis. Like “The City Itself,” “Days & Nights” is conceived as a triptych, albeit one meant to be viewed in a single evening. It comprises two proper shows that span the building’s topography, presented in different order on different nights, along with a short film that links (and lampoons) the more formal material.
Charles Campbell and Cherri Macht’s “A Quiet Ambition” occupies the ground floor. Utilizing spoken text from “Lord of the Flies” and from writers including Italo Calvino and Susan Sontag, it depicts a man and a woman adrift in the loneliness and isolation of contemporary urban life. Audiences are led slowly down a long hallway as the performers inhabit a series of stylized spaces that include a room with artificial rain; a surreal garden filled with origami birds; and a starkly lit chamber where the actors tilt on boards balanced on tin cans while reciting their lines.
The effect is jarring, disorienting and, ultimately, paradoxically soulful. In one sequence Macht chews popcorn and drinks beer while, in the room next to her, Campbell writhes in anguish. In the penultimate sequence the players sit at a distance from one another across a vast open floor while playing out the stultifying dead end of their attempts at connection. The audience sits on the floor or stands while attempting to come to grips with what might possibly be expected of them.
Gulgun Kayim’s “The Hidden Room” is even more text-driven (much of Skewed Vision’s work, while characterized by inventive visuals and astonishing attention to detail, is intellectually grounded in avant-garde literary prose), based on the work of Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. Schulz, a Jew, was forced to paint a mural in his final days for a German S.S. officer; here his story is converted to the Rumpelstiltskin myth, with actor Nathan Christopher buying another day by weaving strips of shredded paper into books for a shouting overseer (Tyson Forbes).
Moving through the shadowy, eerie space of the vacant building, the audience encounters ghostly shop assistants, a cracked ornithologist father (Campbell) and a horrific dinnertime scene. Most crucial is the explosion of Schulz’s notion that “there is no dead matter,” and that rooms and spaces are charged with life, possibility and traces of both past and future. It might as well be Skewed Visions’ mission statement.
Between shows, audience members can view Sean Kelley-Pegg’s “Time for Bed,” an absurdist short film in which Campbell plays an insomniac wandering the building in which the other shows take place. After ensuring the doors are all locked, he begins to play out a series of scenarios, with dolls, that spoof the other two creations. Sequences include a suicidal military man, a Rumpelstiltskin enactment and a prolonged sex scene. The overall effect is to remind one that there is indeed a smile playing beneath the surface of the gravity otherwise felt during the long sojourn through the building’s halls.
It is no exaggeration to say Skewed Visions is creating important and groundbreaking work. In lesser hands such an endeavor could be tedious, if not downright painful to experience. But in this case, an attention to craft, a thorough understanding of concept and a wealth of solid performances make this a dream from which it is difficult to fully awaken.