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Mixed Blood’s ‘Autonomy’ is site-specific, supercharged; James Beard winner on Sunday’s ‘Minnesota Original’

In playwright Ken LaZebnik’s words, “Autonomy” is “like an environmental, agitprop Brechtian piece. There’s a lot of humor in it.”

Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s founder and artistic director
Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s founder and artistic director, gave members of the media a tour of the “Autonomy” space at RiverCentre on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting

Site-specific is the rage. Dances, plays, even operas are popping up in unusual places. With “Autonomy,” Mixed Blood Theatre has raised the bar. This is site-specific, supercharged. Running through Sunday in 70,000 square feet at RiverCentre, with a cast of 20 and a supporting cast of 40 classic cars, it’s hugely ambitious and borderline nutty. If you have tickets, you’re lucky, because it sold out by Thursday afternoon.

Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s founder and artistic director, credits two experiences for planting the seeds for “Autonomy” in his brain.

The first was the Minnesota Street Rod Association’s Back to the 50s weekend, when more than 12,000 cars, all 1964 and older, draw huge crowds to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. “I’ve always thought that we in the performing arts could learn something from watching people pull their lawn chairs out to watch these moving pieces of art,” Reuler said at a preview Thursday morning.

The second was a trip to Corpus Christi, where a church holds an annual Drive-Through Life of Jesus. “You went from manger to crucifix in your car, listening to the show through your sound system with 100 actors telling the tale.”

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Reuler has always loved cars, and he has a 40-year friendship with playwright Ken LaZebnik, who lives in Los Angeles’ Studio City. Reuler got in touch with LaZebnik, who had already written several plays for Mixed Blood. LaZebnik worked on “Autonomy” for two years. Set in 2022, taking place over nine eight-minute scenes including a short film made in Hollywood, it’s about autonomous vehicles, climate change and immigration.

In LaZebnik’s words, “It’s like an environmental, agitprop Brechtian piece. There’s a lot of humor in it.” Also death, a looming pandemic and a talking Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.

Each scene has a theme and several “supporting characters”: classic cars that reflect the theme. For a scene called “Fire!” the cars are a 1932 Ford, a 1940 Ford and a 1940 Chevrolet, each painted with flames. A scene called “Failure Is in the Eye of the Beholder” features a Corvair, a Pacer, a Gremlin and an Edsel.

Audience members, in groups of 25, will move from scene to scene in golf carts, with two-minute breaks between scenes to allow for travel time. One group will follow another. All the scenes and all the acting will take place simultaneously. Everyone will wear headphones or earbuds so they only hear the scene they’re supposed to hear. “I’ve done some crazy things,” LaZebnik said at the preview, “but this is easily the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

Surprising for a guy who’s very into cars, Reuler is all for autonomous vehicles. “They’re coming, and they’re going to be good for us. Good for the environment. Transformative. You’ll be productive on your way to work. Trillions of dollars will be saved. Carbon emissions reduced. No more DUIs or fatalities.”

The biggest problem at the start was how to handle Gabby, the main character, a teenage girl and computer savant. With all the scenes happening at once, Gabby could only be in one scene. To LaZebnik, that felt wrong. “I believe audiences want to follow the simple, emotional journey of the hero,” he said. “Then Jack hit on the idea of triple casting.” Gabby will be played by three actors. The one you see in the first scene will be the one you see all the way through – even in the film, which was shot three times.

The play runs 90 minutes, with no intermission. The cars are on loan from collectors all over Minnesota. For a time, Reuler went to car shows and handed out cards that said “Does your car want to be in showbiz?” He connected with people who connected him with other people.

A few fun facts from Reuler: The only car he wanted but couldn’t find was a Pinto. “So many of them just rusted and got taken to the junkyard.” The Oscar Meyer Weinermobile is a miniature. “To get the real one, you had to agree to buy two tons of hot dogs. We did not do that.” And “The last time we opened a show on a Thursday and closed it on a Sunday was because it was terrible.”

A couple more from LaZebnik: The mammoth tooth in the Arctic Circle scene is real. It belongs to James Denton, an actor in the scene, who bought it on eBay. And: “Jack has always had a lot of cars, but they’ve never been fancy. In the old days – this goes back to the ’80s – there would be these junkers behind Mixed Blood. They were Jack’s cars. Big old Oldsmobiles he would just leave parked at the theater.”

“Autonomy” ends Sunday evening. As noted earlier, it’s sold out.

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James Beard winner on Sunday’s ‘MN Original’

It’s mere coincidence that Ann Kim of Young Joni, Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza is featured in Sunday’s Minnesota Original episode, less than a week after winning Best Chef: Midwest at the James Beard Awards. Or maybe it has something to do with the MNO team’s knack for scoping out interesting artists – in this case, chefs, because they’re artists, too. (We’re waiting for the MNO episode on mixologists, formerly known as bartenders.)

MNO launched its 10th broadcast season last Sunday with an hour-long film about the Minnesota Orchestra’s South Africa tour. Starting this Sunday at 10 p.m. on TPT 2, the series continues in its more usual vein: half-hour episodes with shorter segments on individual artists or groups.

With Kim’s new stature as a James Beard winner, MNO may bring you as close to Young Joni as you’ll get for the next few months, unless you have already booked a table. Kim is delightful in the film, describing how she and her Korean immigrant family “were eating fusion before fusion became a thing” and how “the food that excites me the most is a mix of cultures.”

Ann Kim
Sunday’s Minnesota Original episode with feature James Beard winner Ann Kim of Young Joni, Pizza Lola and Hello Pizza.
The episode also profiles Sameh Wadi, formerly of Saffron, now World Street Kitchen, MilkJam Creamery and Grand Catch. When Wadi was 13, his brother told him that America was a place where he could do and be anything, but he should always be an ambassador for Palestinians. “I took that to heart,” Wadi says. “That’s why our restaurants are full of hospitality and the love we have for people.”

And we meet Kaiseki chef Shige Furukawa, whose Kado No Mise restaurant took over the former Origami space in the North Loop with a “more authentic, traditional way of sushi and Japanese food.” Kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine, a 10-course meal born in the centuries-old tea ceremony. The foods – and the plates, and the lacquerware – reflect the season.

Furukawa came to Minnesota by way of Washington, D.C., Tokyo, New York, and Kyoto. “When I moved here, I was feeling the restaurant scene is 15 years behind New York,” he says. “I want to catch up New York and then take over New York. Then I want to catch up Japanese restaurants in Japan.” Today, at his restaurant, some guests start laughing when they eat his food, out of happiness. And “some guests start to cry,” he says. “That is very important to me. That is why I am a chef.”