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Million Dollar Museum

18 Sep

Wayside Attractions of the Cluttered Kind or “Oh For The Fuck And The Shit Of It”
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“See it to believe it!” reads the front of the program, the exclamatory hyperbole of the roadside attraction. The roadside attraction or wayside museum is a uniquely American institution, one that requires a mix of isolation, so that the proprietor can go about collecting and building their own universe, and connection via the highway or freeway so that the proprietor can show it off and maybe make a buck at it, not too unlike the process of creating a new play. Bedlam Theatre’s Million Dollar Museum, written by Josef Evans and directed by Maren Ward, takes place in such a roadside museum, an attraction but with a focus on “historical” dioramas.

The proprietors in question in Million Dollar Museum are Washington Jefferson Abbondanza (Jon Cole) and Clementine Irene Abbondanza (Kimberly Richardson), children of matriarch Vespuccia Abbondanza (Katie Kaufmann) who has spent her over 200 years alive creating this museum without ever having a visitor. The instigating action of the play, is of course, the arrival of a mysterious visitor, the cowboy caricature Texacon Stark (Johann Hauser-Ulrich) that throws the Abbondanzas in to a panicked frenzy. What follows is a series of loosely interconnected scenes where the children attempt to please their mother by taking Tex on a tour, dioramas populated by a semi-inspirational tuba (Carly Wicks) and a man forced by the museum to play “Sloman” the half-sloth, half-man creature of eras past (George McConnell), revisionist scenes of Western and American history, several gunshots, song and dance numbers, living mannequins (Tom Lloyd), grotesque chefs (Heather Wilson), jazz whales, falling poop and rocket ships. Bedlam has done everything possible to fit in all it could in two hours.

Yet for all of its de-evolution into high functioning nonsense, the story feels slim and conventional. The contrasting themes of the desire to be free as Clementine, Tex and Sloman attempt to escape the maze-like museum versus the filial and organizational duty felt by Washington and Tuba is presented, but because so many of the scenes take place with only two or three of the characters, the sense of conflict is never sustained, but left in favor of little adventure vignettes. There is an allegory for the United States in the play- Vespuccia Abbondanza’s name stems from Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who claimed to have discovered the New World in the 15th century and the Italian word for “abundance”- but that allegory seems to be that when there is a system that has plenty of resources and time, there are people who will want to maintain the status quo and people who will want to fight and change it. That Million Dollar Museum doesn’t come down hard on either side feels like an avoidance of conflict as opposed to balanced presentation.

Even though the energy on the night I attended felt like it ebbed and flowed, the moments where the vocal, physical and textual energy gelled were priceless. Evan’s writing has some great crass outbursts and some elegant twists of circular elocution, especially in the re-imagining of the Mayflower in the “Battle of Excellent” diorama. McConnell gets a highlight of a rant as the desperate, bleeding Sloman rationalizes fighting the system ending with his own self-satisfied, cruel joke, “What’s the melting point of brass, Tuba?” There is a particularly inspired song and dance number to introduce Lloyd’s mannequin (whose name turns out to be Summertime Awesome Face) and who Lloyd endows with the brass of Divine in the dressing room- I would pay to see a show solely based around that character.

The most enjoyable moments throughout the play were the scenes where Cole and Kaufmann’s siblings went at it- the two actors have developed a rapport that is as believable as it is absurd. We open the play with them in the Bedlam bar area, where their introduction is wildly funny; “Put my welcome in your face and consume it!” intoned Cole cheerily. Cole’s dedication to both his mother and his sister makes touching use of his hangdog everyman face that goes rubber with twitchy pride at praise (and coffee) from his mother, while Kaufmann’s side-mouth articulation of a sheltered girl breaking away from the life she has known is by turns charming and awkward and she plays the intrepid adventurer to the hilt. Between the two of them they work incredibly hard to propel Million Dollar Museum through to it’s end.

One of the most poignant (and in context, funny) bits was a sign written in blood that read “NOW WHAT?” One leaves Million Dollar Museum with a similar feeling- for all of it’s grand ambition, large scale scenery and attempts at melding low- and high-brow absurdism that question remains. It is not as though we should expect the answers from the theatre, but that the questions should be better articulated.

Million Dollar Museum runs through October 3rd. For tickets and showtimes, visit Bedlam’s website.

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