“Relics”: Theater of the (gently) absurd at the Guthrie

“Relics”: Theater of the (gently) absurd at the Guthrie

If you like the scene in Disney’s Little Mermaid where Scuttle the seagull shows Ariel how to comb her hair with a dinner-fork “dinglehopper” and play music on a tobacco-pipe “snarflat,” you’ll love Relics at the Guthrie, which stretches the joke out to an hour-long immersive theater experience.

For the Guthrie’s audience, it’s a gentle introduction to the kind of silly, interactive shenanigans you might more typically encounter at a DIY production in the basement of the Casket Arts Building or above a mothballed Halloween supply store. The cast is stocked with stalwarts of that scene, from actress/performance-artist Paige Collette to Zoe Sommers Haas of Open Eye Figure Theatre to the avant-dance tricksters of Supergroup, who contribute choreography.

The show was created by Sarah Agnew, returning in a sense to her Theatre de la Jeune Lune roots; set designer Nick Golfis (Agnew’s husband); and theater artist Chantal Pavageaux. In an interview with the Pioneer Press, Agnew acknowledged that as immersive theater goes, this is no Soap Factory. “You don’t have to wear masks or turn over your wallet or sign a waiver. […] You don’t need to worry you’ll feel like you’re being made an ass of or be called out to do something embarrassing.”

True enough. You’re respectfully elevatored into the Dowling Studio lobby (“We’re going to level negative nine”), where you encounter a scene reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, with actors in protective gear and actress Elise Langer confidently demonstrating how a hair straightener can be used to heat a Twinkie. “It says ‘professional,’ which tells you this was used by a professional chef.”

The audience is then ushered into a specially-built museum that occupies the main Dowling Studio space. Exhibits explain, with cartoonishly inflated reverence, how “anarchaeologists” have defied the conventional wisdom of the distant future (which you’re given to understand you’re now in) by uncovering artifacts of the 21st century “ancients.” Ultimately, performers re-enact what they imagine to have been the rituals of the ancients, lubriciously narrated by Luverne Seifert.

With the caliber of talent involved here, it’s no surprise that there are many enjoyable moments in Relics. There’s a skit about how the ancients bathed in trash bins; Collette leads a makeup tutorial with buttercream frosting; and we see a display of male virility via the zipping and unzipping of fanny packs. There are a lot of easy laughs to be had—and they are duly had—with the misappropriations of “relics” like a Brita pitcher (the ancients used it to trap small animals) and other kitchen utensils (“pass the Calphalon bell, please,” requests a smug musician).

Content with being merely amusing, the show steers determinedly clear of any potentially challenging ideas. The exhibits lightly lampoon museums’ awkward attempts at visitor engagement (what were these mysterious plastic discs used for? share your ideas on this bulletin board!), but having stalked museums of anthropology, the show declines to go in for the kill. A subplot about totalitarian thought control and environmental disaster appears, only to be abruptly dropped. Though very polished in many details, in a larger sense the show feels like a work-in-progress rather than a finished production.

I can’t say I didn’t learn anything, though: that hot Twinkie was delicious.

Jay Gabler