Kevin Kling tells the stories and Simone Perrin makes the music as they tell of the two cities that nourished them both.
Were there ever an argument for humanity's spiritual dimension, it would be Kevin Kling. There simply is not enough flesh and bone and muscle in Kling to generate what seems his endless supply of stories. But in the ether of his memory, Kling has boxed and cataloged the bits of experience that he understands and interprets as meaningful.
Ten years after he crash-landed on death's door and politely declined to come in, Kling exhorts audiences about the necessity of life. It never feels like clichés with him. It feels like nourishment dished out by a survivor.
Kling and Simone Perrin, who in the past five years has become his indispensable musical companion on these word journeys, move beyond the realm of personal recollection in "A Tale of Twin Cities," which opened this weekend at the History Theatre in St. Paul. This being Kling, the cities' history will be seen through a personal lens.
"I might be talking about some historical figure and then I'll go into some personal digression about some guy I met in a bar one time," Kling said. "What I want to do is look at the DNA of a city to see what gives it its personality."
Indeed. How can two cities joined so distinctly by geography seem so different? St. Paul, the last city of the East, and Minneapolis, the first of the West, are like twins who from a distance seem similar, yet reveal their quirks at closer range.
"What helped create both of those personalities?" Kling asked.
"There's this idea that we're one heart split by the river," he said. "I think we're two hearts joined by the river."
After the crash
Kling was on his way to perform at a Minnesota Fringe Festival show in August 2001 when he crashed his motorcycle. Months of rehabilitation and extensive surgeries restored most of him (his right arm dangles limp because of nerve damage). Kling has used the near-death experience as a chisel to carve deeper into his story lode.
It may seem he's surfacing material from a darker place, but it's not that simple. Kling now expresses rich lessons in stories that once seemed mere entertainment. Last November, he and Perrin were part of "Scarecrow on Fire," a show that imagines a grim future for Dorothy and her Oz mates. Kling, as the scarecrow, concluded the show with a speech about endurance and acceptance. You can't go back and change things, he told Dorothy, a role sung with poignant heartache by Perrin. Life requires that you live now.
"I was definitely speaking to anyone who has experienced trauma -- who has been on the inside of trauma," he said in a recent interview.
Perrin entered Kling's performance milieu in 2006 when he was writing a show about the underworld that needed an accordionist. ("You can't write about hell without an accordion," he said.) Although he had worked almost exclusively as a solo act previously, Kling and Perrin have since worked on almost 10 shows together. In "A Tale of Twin Cities" she'll again bring out the accordion and, this time, a banjo.
"I feel like Kevin is at the steering wheel with a strong sense of what he wants," said Perrin about how the two work together.
Sometimes they'll search for a folk song that fits the mood (such as "Come to the Hills," a Celtic song used for the current show), or Kling will want a specific sound ("Slavic yodeling" he once instructed for an original song). Perrin adjusts Kling's lyrics until they're both happy with it.
"We bring two very different energies, but on the same level," Kling said. "There's something visceral when you work with someone you really like. It turns an evening into an event."
Making a place
So what defines the Twin Cities? Perrin grew up in Winona but now calls Minneapolis "my town" and St. Paul as "the smart, older brother or uncle." She talks about the geography of the river.
"I didn't realize it until I was living in New York City and looked at a map," she said. "I saw all the nature refuges where I grew up and I said, 'Oh, that's why I had such a happy childhood.'"
Kling's geographic solace is the prairie. "I like it better without corn, but even with corn, it's OK," he said.
Perrin mentions the urban forest, the vast blue sky and the weather. It bonds neighbors who meet in snowy alleys and heroically hike down the block to shovel out old Mr. Jones. Over and over again.
"And then in the spring we lose our minds," Perrin said.
For this show, she and Kling wrote songs about the State Fair, Pig's Eye Parrant and Kirby Puckett -- each a definitive expression of the Twin Cities.
And if outsiders, attracted by our quality of life, should flock to the Twin Cities? What role do they play?
Kling gets that slight devil in his smile.
"Oh, we'll wear them down," he said. "Over time. We'll work on them."
Much like his stories.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299