By Adam Michael Schenck
Assuredly, the dinner theater experience hearkens back to a different era of live entertainment, before the days of stand-up comedy and before television provided our laughs in the comfort of our homes.
Why then do we go out, in this case, to the Bunker Hills Event Center in Coon Rapids? My partner and I sat with mild-mannered suburban strangers, after all, and strangers have the worst reputation.
We go out to see something different! Let me list some positives from the experience: good food, good comedic acting, and an excess of bonhomie. Seated close to the stage with perhaps 300 other people in a well-appointed venue, my partner and I could see the moment-to-moment acting choices of the cast of Don’t Hug Me—We’re Married.
The play is created by two natives of the Minneapolis area: the Olson brothers, Phil (writer) and Paul (musical composer). These partners have created other seasonally-oriented shows which utilize broad comedy and play fast and loose with cliché and stereotype, much like many other situational comedies, but when performed live, the comedic timing improves. And of course the laugh track is real!
Perhaps dinner theater is the province of “laffs.” For my part it was refreshing to join so many others in a night literally catered for us. First, the food was good, starting with delicious bleu cheese on our fresh wedge salad. My partner and I had the short ribs, which were moist and in a not-overwhelming portion.
For a dinner theater show, the professionalism of the cast impressed. Three men and two women dance, sing, and cut one-liners. Real-life married couple Joe and Lydia Keith portray Aarvid and Bernice, a couple desiring the simple things in life for their life together “Up North”: married bliss and a chance to get on television.
Aarvid, however, does not make enough money for a wedding, which Kanute (Paul Somers), Bernice’s successful ex-boyfriend who still desires her, points out. Regarding marriage, bar owners Gunner and Clara (Ross Young, Megan Kelly Hubbell) explain the downsides of domesticity for our star-crossed lovers, always to humorous effect.
Here, however, is where theme could have expanded into insight, which the Olson’s script does not attempt. The one-liners about married life could have been lifted from The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy, which we and our fellow audience members ate up gustatorially, but the jokes do not move to satisfactory life lessons for our characters.
Later, we enjoyed chocolate martinis with our table mates, and we had a sweet dessert during the short intermission an hour into the show. The table service was excellent.
So far, so good. What were the “opportunities” for this show, as they say in the corporate world? The most notable problem with Don’t Hug Me is the retrograde gender politics. Ross Young portrays a Gunner’s sister Trigger in drag, drawing out jokes in equal parts about him playing two characters and cross-dressing. But there’s a maxim the Olsons could have utilized for a rewrite: it’s better to laugh with someone instead of at someone.
The humor of Trigger’s character often functions on the supposed hilarity of a masculine, not-good-looking woman seeking to couple with Kanute. While Ross Young goes all-out for these jokes, even to the point of breaking his fellow actors out of character, transgender politics aren’t what they used to be, especially in a time when North Carolina lost many millions of dollars in economic activity because of their “bathroom bill.”
The law bans transgender people from going into the bathroom of their choice, a solution in need of a problem if there ever was one. It’s not 1986 anymore, and the Olson brothers should know better, especially when current stars of comedy like Tig Notaro (herself genderqueer) make regressive politics the butt of their jokes.
Indeed, no matter the theatrical production, storytelling should delight and instruct. Check on the “delight” part times two with the many laughs and the good food and drink. Work on the “instruct” part.
All of this is to say that theater is a complex thing in which a lot can go right and much can go wrong. So much went right with Don’t Hug Me—We’re Married that this critic wanted it all to go right. Nowadays they say women can have it all, and Lydia Keith’s character Bernice seeks out the same: love and career. A script can have it all, too.
There is solid comedy and good food to be had at Bunker Hills; take the former with a grain of salt even if the food doesn’t need it.