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Bain Boehlke.

Miracle Worker

Nine years ago on a beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, director Bain Boehlke got the idea to build a small storefront theatre in Minneapolis, his home town. It had been more than five years since Boehlke left the Children's Theatre Company, which he helped build and expand during CTC's glory days in the 1970s. Half a decade of reading, reflection and walking on foreign beaches was enough; Boehlke was ready to get back to work.

"I wanted a theatre where I could have a small space, do simple productions and lavish a lot of care on them, as opposed to the larger institutions where there are a lot of political agendas, the financial scenario is gigantic, and career issues are at stake," Boehlke explains.

The fates have been kind

The Jungle Theater, as Boehlke's brainchild is now called, is a tiny 100-seat gem of a space located catty-corner from a sports bar and a shop specializing in sex toys at the intersection of Lyndale Avenue and south Minneapolis's notoriously sleazy Lake Street. Since opening five years ago, the Jungle has been so successful that it recently bought the building that houses the sports bar and sex shop, and plans are in the works to build a new, slightly larger, as-yet-unnamed second theatre there.

The fates have been so kind to Boehlke that he's able to hop a plane to Puerto Vallarta after every show opens in order to revisit the well of his initial inspiration. While Boehlke recharges himself out of town, his plays invariably gamer enthusiastic reviews, leaving virtually everyone in the Minneapolis theatre community wondering how Boehlke does it.

The director's own analysis is typically disarming. "It's intuitive," he says. "I don't choose plays for their box-office potential or to appease a certain demographic sector of the population. And I'm not someone who makes mad, iconoclastic, anarchistic choices for some weird personal reason, either. There are playwrights and themes I am interested in."

Ask Boehlke to explain exactly what those themes and interests are, however, and you're in for a lengthy trot down a number of historical, philosophical, mythological and spiritual roads that all converge somewhere in Boehlke's soul. Belying his age, Boehlke, 55, is one of those preternaturally curious people who radiates a combination of childlike innocence and world-wise intelligence. He is old enough not to care much about the superficial things in life - trends, television, fancy digs - but still young enough to be carried away by his whims and get excited about the possibilities of great art.

Few theatres on the planet more precisely reflect its artistic director's vision and personality than the Jungle. Boehlke and much of his staff - the stage manager, lighting designer, sound technician and box-office manager - all live in small apartments above the theatre. They are as close to family as you can get without sharing DNA.

The Jungle has no artistic or social mission except to produce plays that Boehlke likes. The plays that appeal to him run the gamut from new work by playwrights Kevin Kling, Elizabeth Egloff and Win Wells, to contemporary classics by David Mamet, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard and John Guare, and to shameless chestnuts like Dial "M" for Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Miracle Worker.

The Jungle's astonishing success with the latter category mystifies people most. Boehlke has a peculiar genius for rescuing warhorses from years of abuse - he doesn't just revive these plays; he rediscovers them. Respecting and trusting the playwrights' original intentions is Boehlke's creed. By scraping away the crust of cliches and the layers of sentimental goo that have settled and hardened on these scripts, Boehlke has an uncanny way of revealing the authentic drama that lurks beneath.

Anne Frank with a bratty streak

Boehlke's Dial "M" for Murder dared to treat every line as if it had the same integrity as Shakespeare. In The Diary of Anne Frank, he drove a wedge between the title character and her untouchable angelic image as a child martyr. Suddenly, Anne was no longer the doleful young girl in the book-jacket photo; she was a spirited, lippy adolescent with a bratty streak. And in The Miracle Worker, Boehlke avoided treating the relationship between Annie Sullivan and her star pupil as a greeting-card tale of human triumph by bringing into focus its tempestuous, disturbing, violent and often cruel clash of opposing wills.

In each case, Boehlke successfully stripped away a familiar play's sappy associations to reveal its pulsing human heart. Patrons come to the Jungle not only expecting to see a play, but expecting to be reminded why theatre matters.

Still, Boehlke is a bit perplexed that he has come to be known as a reconstituter of murdered plays, mostly because he himself doesn't believe that any play ever really dies.

"Plays are always alive on the page," he says philosophically - and he believes that every theatre artist's job is to remind audiences of that fact. As hackneyed as it sounds, Boehlke's primary motivation is his undying faith in and obsession with the humble power of a well-done play.

There are those who criticize him for "playing it safe," for not using his extraordinary talents to do more "interesting" plays that might present more of an artistic challenge - in theory, at least. But Boehlke thinks these criticisms are misguided.

"People tend to forget that these plays are extraordinarily difficult to do well," he says. "That's why you see so many bad productions of them."

Tad Simons is a Minneapolis-based writer.
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Title Annotation:director
Author:Simons, Tad
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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