Small Metal Objects: A sharp take on public art, community and friendship

Categories: Theater

Small Metal Objects
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
June 5-7
Review and photos by Jeff Shaw

We're sitting in covered bleachers, the 50 or so of us. It's a humid day at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and we, the audience, are centrally located in a well-walked area. We're all seated and wearing jet-black headphones.

A skateboarder rolls by, wheels clattering on the concrete path. He turns his head to observe us. People on walks pause more openly, halting their dogs or baby strollers to give us a good, long look.

Others break off what they're doing entirely. The boyfriend in an Asian couple rubbernecks as long as he can before his beautiful girlfriend, laughing an embarrassed laugh, pulls him along. A woman of a certain age wearing a hot-pink top brakes her bicycle and takes in what's going on for a good five minutes.

A few of our collaborators, though, are effectively being ignored by the hundreds of passers-by. And they're the performers.

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The audience, situated at a central point in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, waits for the show to begin. More images and notes in the slideshow.

This is Small Metal Objects, Walker Art Center's latest groundbreaking offering. The production from Australia-based Back to Back Theatre meditates on where the public and private spheres begin, in art and in life, but the show's most powerful theme concerns what it's like to be invisible in plain sight.

The story follows two fast friends, Steve and Gary, who are seemingly mentally disabled. Gary is the rock, the steadfast bulwark against the emotional waves buffeting Steve. The central narrative event involves two corporate types attempting to use the two men for their own purposes.

The story's path is Godot-meets-Bartleby, with an enigmatic and invisible MacGuffin. The suit-clad interlopers, Alan and Caroline, want something from the duo. Steve, like Melville's scrivener, would prefer not to.

This plot points serves only as a conduit to the work's true meditative task, however.
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Steve (right), a mentally challenged man, is harassed by Alan -- and barely noticed by the public. More notes and photos on the slideshow.

Whether Steve is standing alone (as he often is) or being assailed by other characters in entreaties become part of an illicit transaction, he attracts little attention. The occasional glance, perhaps -- nothing compared to the bemused and bewildered stares we in the audience received. The performers' headsets are far less conspicuous than ours, to be sure, but the fact is still thought-provoking.

This is one of many counterpoints explored during the 90-minute show: public vs. private space, seeing vs. refusal, loyal friendship vs. mercenary personal interests. The first of those affects everyone, from the unwitting bystanders to the cast.

But it most especially affects those of us who have chosen to participate and observe. Theatrically, watching a show in headphones affects one's experience of the narrative. It becomes an journey that is simultaneously shared and unshared. You hear a smattering of laughter. Did I miss that?, you wonder. Was it a visual I missed, since the actors are in different places, sometimes mingling with the crowd? An audio joke? Or was it laughter that originated from another group of people in the garden, and the sound just carried here, into the audience? There's enough at work that you always feel like you might be missing something.

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Can you spot the four performers in this photo? You can if you see the slideshow.

An old professor of mine used to say that there are only two stories in the world: someone takes a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Within this two simple archetypes there are many variants. An internal journey. An imagined stranger. A town that exists in different fashions to different people living in the same space.

This show incorporates elements of all of those, adapting its story into one simultaneously universal and particular. As the cast walks back toward the audience during the finale, walking in and out of the unwitting crowd, the journey has come full circle, with Gary's and Steve's friendship constantly at the emotional center.

Small Metal Objects innovates without seeming avant garde for avante garde's sake. As enjoyable as it is thought-provoking, this is the type of show that you roll around in your head for days -- or discuss it with friends, blending your own private moments with public ones.

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