By LIZ + BRYCE BYRON. Victor + Valentine is a new play by new theater company Collective Unconscious Performance. The play centers around storyteller and puppeteer Victor von Valentine as he puts on the final performance of his world-touring Cabaret For The Broken-hearted. Featuring artistic re-tellings of classic fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Victor’s cabaret includes The Little Mermaid and The Red Shoes, told with Victor’s unique style and making creative use of several puppets. As the cabaret goes on, Victor decides to add a new story to the mix, just for this finale. As this new story goes on it becomes clear that it is Victor’s own autobiography of a troubled childhood, unrequited love and coming to terms with his own queer sexuality.
Particularly striking is this play’s ability to to transcend boundaries. The show, and the show-within-the-show, plays with the limits between classic fairy tales and modern art, between audience and stage, and between queer and straight. This crossing of boundaries begins even before the curtain opens when we were greeted by Emma, the duck, Victor’s assistant (or maybe sidekick) and co-puppeteer. As the play goes on this type of interaction continues when Victor encourages the audience to join him in a drink (entirely possible since the venue, the Bryant-Lake Bowl, offers full service throughout the show), and culminates with the characters leaving the stage to leave the theater through the same exit the audience will later use. This play is also a perfect example of a story about a queer character that manages to escape the boundaries of queer theater. While Victor’s tale of unrequited love is clearly tied to his sexuality, this play universalizes that experience to make it relatable to all audiences without reducing Victor to a set of tired and offensive stereotypes. Yes, he’s in love with a straight man, but who among us has never felt the ache of unrequited love?
If there is one concern about the presentation of queer identities, it is found with Emma. Yes, the duck. She may be a duck, but she’s also definitely a lady duck, and she shows distressing signs of being cast as the fag hag. When a kiss between her and Victor is suggested, she seems quite enthusiastic at the prospect, while Victor sees it as a casual show of amicable affection. Is Emma’s relationship to Victor the same as Victor’s heartbreaking relationship to his straight male love interest? Why isn’t this as heartbreaking for her as it is for Victor? This was a curious relationship.
David Hanzal (conception, direction, production design) and Katharine Sherman (text) have done an incredible job of creating a beautiful, intriguing, and different piece. Music, movement, lighting, puppets, and stories are interwoven in a way that creates a flowing, visually stunning performance. Both Victor and Emma‘s costumes were fabulous: extreme and colourful, yet simple. The puppets… oh, the puppets! They’re clever and pretty, and used in really fun ways. Never have empty mini-bar bottles looked so good!
The performances are melodramatic at times, but this seems entirely intentional. Philip Gates as Victor is definitely a drama llama, but his physical style is riveting. Sarah Dewhirst as Victor’s duck sidekick is lively and sympathetic as she struggles to put up with her friend’s histrionics. The fun thing about a show like this is that you can enjoy it on multiple levels; if you like to ponder the Big Questions, this piece provides lots of material to ponder: the nature of love, the value of fame, the way we tell and use stories… but you can also leave that aside and still let yourself be swept along with the stories.
At an hour long, and with a fairly unusual style and minimal budget, Victor + Valentine seems like it might be a better fit for the Fringe Festival than as a stand-alone play. But then again, tickets ($12, or $10 for students/in advance/with a Fringe button) are the same cost as a Fringe show, and you can always hang out at the Bryant-Lake Bowl afterward for dinner or, heck, a round of bowling. All in all, if Victor + Valentine is a sign of things to come from Collective Unconscious Performance, this is definitely a company to look out for.
Victor + Valentine by Collective Unconscious Performance runs July 11-16, 2015 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, 810 W Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN. Doors open at 6pm, performances at 7pm. Tickets $12 or $10 in advance, with student ID, or with a Minnesota Fringe button. Buy tickets at the door or call the theater at 612-825-8949 to reserve seats.