Lunatic fringe

Picture it: trendy Manhattan folks sipping cafe latte at the terminally hip Cornelia Street Cafe, while in a corner, Melissa Cooper entertains them with her talents as a ventriloquist.

Using a dummy named Jack Wood, Cooper explores the silly and the satirical, from channeling with the dummy to creating little identity plays. "I dealt with all kinds of identity questions," Cooper reminisced recently. "And the slightly sadistic power games we play."

Fast forward a decade or so: Cooper is living in Dallas with a grown-up job as artistic associate of the Dallas Theater Center (before that, she'd held the even more sobering title of dramaturge). But the former New York performance artist and wife of DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger has never lost her love for unconventional theater--ventriloquism, clowning, vaudeville, new and old.

In fact, this year's Big D Festival of the Unexpected--DTC's fringe festival, produced by Cooper--is in large part a wild ride through so-called illegitimate theater. "I've always had a love for the bastard theater," says Cooper, who looks like one of Botticelli's women with her hair cut short.

Husband Hamburger shares her affection for the theatrical fringe (little-known fact: Hamburger was once a featured clown with the Ringling Bros. Circus), and thus supported her choices for the festival.

"When you think about it, vaudeville artists like the Marx Brothers are our American heritage, our Shakespeare and Moliere," Cooper says. "They're important sources of our theatrical identity."

If one can cull a theme from Cooper's largely unsung labors, the third annual festival is a contemporary celebration of that rich American heritage. The festival is grounded by a four-week engagement of those postmodern clowns of horror, Mump & Smoot. Their director, Karen Hines, has been enlisted to perform Pochsy's Lips, a clown play she has developed on her own. Cooper is using the theater's Lay Studio to create a cabaret atmosphere for Hines and Dallas humorist and storyteller C.J. Critt, who will perform Smoking Lips, Spoken Lies & Other Words to Dream By.

Cooper mined the theatrical landscape--as she does for each year's festival--in search of work that is new and experimental, but most importantly, for "theater that is pleasurable. The pleasure principle is very important to us," she says, speaking for herself and her husband. "Our tastes are very broad--it can be a dense work by Erik Ehn, or Mump & Smoot. But it has to be, plain and simply, pleasurable."

What a concept. Much of the festival's roster illustrates their pleasure principle in surprising, lighthearted ways--lunchtime shows, food and drink served, an emphasis on humor. Like theater for the masses, theater for pleasure is mocked by some practitioners. But New York City's Serious Fun Festival is another example of producers showing alternative work in palatable, gracious ways that encourage new audiences.

Cooper has already achieved that in Dallas, with style. With any luck, this year will bring more new faces, even if it's for the new children's festival or, less likely, the food.

"We have sympathy for audiences who feel shut out of theater," says Cooper, who is a young, exuberant 41. She adds that theater must share the blame for the bulk of people who would rather go to a movie because theater doesn't speak to them--it speaks at them or down to them. "There's an approach that can work," she says, "but often the playwrights and directors haven't challenged themselves enough to make the text come alive."

Which is not to say that Cooper has created a dumbed-down, Pocket Sandwich-style festival. (Unlike the Pocket Sandwich, the local theater of sudsy beers and nacho cheese, the cabaret will not serve food or drink during performances. So get two cups of beer before the show starts if you have to.) Broad humor and accessible tastes aside, Cooper has included some highly challenging, difficult works that may well prove to be the most rewarding.

Skin, by Naomi Iizuka, has been adapted from Georg Bachner's Woyzeck. Cooper describes Skin as a hard-hitting, modern tale of disaffection and estrangement set in California. Iizuka has earned a place with the likes of Erik Ehn, Suzan Laurie-Parks, and Mac Wellman as one of the young revolutionaries of theater, but this is the first of her works to be produced in Dallas. "I was about to write away for a play by Naomi when Matthew Wilder--who I also wanted to work with--pitched two plays to direct, and Naomi's was one of them," Cooper says.

Cooper had also wanted Larry Brown to do an adaptation of his arresting, critically acclaimed novel, Dirty Work, for last year's festival, but it didn't happen because there wasn't enough money. "We tried to afford it last year--we still do this on a relative shoestring--but we just couldn't. A cast of eight is a lot for us, but we started this year's festival with Dirty Work as a given."

Dirty Work is about two Vietnam War veterans, one black, one white. It is set in a V.A. hospital 20 years after the war. There is a hallucinatory charge to the novel, set over the course of one night, that one hopes will translate to the stage.

Cooper clearly has the most ambitious festival to date on her hands, a logistical and scheduling nightmare of spaces and dates and times that no one would wish on his worst enemy. But aside from leaving some room for productions to "shrink or grow," Cooper's job is done. Like the mother that she is (of toddler-thespian Nicholas Hamburger), she can only stand back now and watch the festival she has nurtured stand or fall on its own. Inevitably, it will do both. But with Cooper at the helm, the works that fail will do so with aplomb.

"I don't care if people say, 'What the hell was that?' if they also say, 'I laughed, but I don't know why I was laughing,'" Cooper says. "I'm trying to loosen up the boundaries of what constitutes theater.

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Nora Fitzgerald