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A minister reflects on ‘Dirty Old Man Cabaret’ and the church

On a recent Saturday night, instead of polishing my sermon for Sunday morning, I responded to a friend’s invitation to attend Bedlam Theatre‘s “Dirty Old Man Cabaret,” a celebration of co-artistic director John Francis Bueche’s 40th birthday. I was acquainted with Bedlam, having participated in a project there some years ago, and thought it’d be fun to reconnect.

“Are you up for this?” my friend asked, meeting me in the lobby. “There’s a nude aquarium in there.” “Sure,” I said. “It’s OK.”

The next morning on my hour drive to Le Sueur to substitute preach, I tried hard to concentrate on the communion Sunday sermon — communing with God and with each other. But my mind doggedly detoured to the experience at Bedlam the night before. It was rowdy and raucous, witty and daring, and, yes, bawdy, an utterly engaging evening of roasting Bueche and ushering him through this rite of passage.

Hmm. As I poked through my memories of the event, indeed, I noted elements of ritual. Then rationality kept going straight while I took a sharp left turn, exuberantly seeing in the Cabaret parallels to worship. For instance, they took an offering at the door — not a bad idea, I thought. Get the money before the show — why didn’t we think of that? Then if the sermon’s lousy, it won’t affect proceeds.

Sacred text, spiritual reflection …
Sacred text (Celtic), was read by co-artistic director Maren Ward, playing Da Coach, a can-do, bossy guy in plaid sport coat, baseball cap, and mustache, standing in, purportedly, for Maren who couldn’t be there because she was at the Brigit Festival at Powderhorn Park. “Oh sacred fire, oh moon beams …,” Da Coach crooned mockingly.

A time of forced spiritual reflection followed for exactly one minute, as Da Coach paced the stage with stopwatch, barking “Think about the ebbing and flowing in your life! What is ebbing? What is flowing? … Ok, now you’re done.” Why am I so timid, I pondered: “Let’s pause, and if you feel comfortable and it fits for you, let’s consider ….”

Lessons were read: 101 ways to offend people. Most of us don’t need help in this area. Call it what you wish — “original sin,” “human nature.” I call it “perversatility” (you may borrow my word).

Throughout the evening, people in their birthday suits milled about behind a filmy net in the dimly lit “nude aquarium,” stage left. Definitely primal. The garden of Eden? And, singly, they stepped into the tub for a ritual bath. Oh my goodness — baptism, cleansing, renewal?

Then the rebirthing ritual, I think. Bueche was brought on stage, and his mother, who labored to tie him to a chair, as instructed, and unbutton his shirt. A scantily clad, lap-dancing fellow then shaved off Bueche’s beard. A little flesh showing, the clean-shaven, boyish Bueche glowed with new life, as if born … again.

Finally, the message, delivered cleverly and effectively via music, “When will we learn to love and not hate.” Amen.

Exploring the meaning of the church
During coffee hour in Le Sueur, a few of us took to discussing what it means to be a church, how we might rethink it. They’re studying the book “They Like Jesus But Not the Church.” Snazzy title, I thought, and gutsy people here.

“We must learn how to connect with people outside the church,” one said. “The church has so often been identified with judgment,” said another. I nodded and then it hit me — should I tell them about the Cabaret? These are people with a sense of humor, and I’m not their pastor, just a sub … 

I replayed “Dirty Old Man Cabaret” for them in detail. First, they chuckled, then joined the game, finding theological parallels. The nude aquarium — “coming clean.” Oh, yes, “being yourself,” “transparency!” I often long for more authenticity in the church, sometimes in myself — being real, as God made us, without pretense.

“You know,” one of them exclaimed, “it’s about community. That’s what they’re about.” (I recalled a Bedlam sign: We foster community, democracy, the power of the individual.) The “communing” sermon was exploding and expanding before our eyes. Then a middle-aged woman voiced the ultimate, “Jesus would have been there.” Yes, a church lady said it. We nodded.

A celebration of life
During the Bedlam intermission I had meandered, shared the ache of parenting troubled adult children with one of the performers, and reassured another, who said, apologetically, “You’ve got to come back — we mostly do other kinds of things.”

“This is fine,” I offered, “very funny, and I’ll come back.” At 11:30 p.m., as I prepared to leave, a cheery, pony-tailed young man approached me, “I feel like I know you … and I hear you’re a minister.”

“Yes,” I nodded, noting how truly indelible the role is. “I do freelance work these days, but I’m actually preaching in the morning.” “Oh, wow!” he exclaimed. “Can you stay for my piece? It’s erotic shadow puppets.”

Reluctantly, I left — it’d be a wait for the shadow puppets. There was no disconnect in this young man’s mind between the sphere of faith and erotic puppets, and I was glad. I walked to my car with a good feeling.

What I know is this: In this world of war and greed, a party was held, celebrating life. And Jesus was there.

The Rev. Jean E. Greenwood, of Minneapolis, is an educator, mediator and Presbyterian minister. She can be reached at green104 [at] umn.edu.

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