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Red Eye Theater still raising eyebrows at age 25

It’s hardly surprising that art groups are bracing for difficult financial times. But a solicitation that arrived this week struck me with a nostalgic thunderbolt.

Red Eye Theater is 25 years old. It hardly seems possible — not that 25 years have past, but that Red Eye is still around. And it’s still as doggedly, tantalizingly off-beat as it ever was.

I was midway through a 10-year career as theater critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press when Red Eye — then called Red Eye Collaboration — came on the theater scene in 1983. I vividly remember sitting through shows with a dozen or so other stalwarts in a grungy second-floor loft on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, just a few doors down from an Asian massage parlor that was always getting raided by the cops.

The co-founders — then as now — were Steve Busa, who usually directed and sometimes wrote, and Miriam Must, who usually acted and handled the practical things, like dealing with critics. To call them dedicated is a gross understatement.

Their work usually fascinated and annoyed me. When you get right down to it, theater critics yearn for clarity because it makes their job easier. With many Red Eye shows, you felt you were seeing something worthwhile, but you often weren’t quite sure why.

I still remember one theater piece where an actor rummaged wordlessly around a dilapidated apartment set. He ate something, sat on the toilet, engaged in a little sexual self-stimulation — and then abruptly committed suicide. End of show.

I’ve seen a lot of theater over the years, including far too many versions of “Fiddler on the Roof.” But that show at Red Eye sticks in my memory and I still ponder it.

Red Eye now operates out of a dandy little theater just off Nicollet Avenue at 14th Street in near-downtown Minneapolis. Must, who could make a telephone directory interesting just by reading it, was in the last show I saw there — and it was both perplexing and entertaining. In April, the theater will present “God’s Ear,” a play by Jenny Schwartz that had the off-beat theater crowd buzzing when it was performed in New York about a year ago.

During an interview she gave to the Boston Globe, Schwartz said something that probably sums up much of Red Eye’s mission: “I just love about theater that you can make a whole world in a room by suggesting things … that you don’t need a lot of technology,” she said. That’s it: When done right, theater creates the universe.

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