How much does Jack Reuler love cars? Moments after wrapping up an April interview about his revolutionary car-themed “Autonomy” show, the Mixed Blood Theatre founder headed for the airport to fly to Arizona, where he planned to check out a convertible he was coveting.
“I’ve always loved cars and I’ve never been able to afford the cars I love,” Reuler said. “So I appreciate the cars of others.”
Reuler gets to appreciate about 40 cars in the massive “Autonomy,” taking place over 70,000 square feet of St. Paul’s RiverCentre this week. The cars on view, used for backdrops and crucial plot elements, include entertainment-themed vehicles such as the Batmobile, Scooby-Doo van and a 1981 DeLorean signed by “Back to the Future” star Christopher Lloyd. There are autos ranging in value from six-figure Teslas and Lamborghinis to the modest-but-beloved 1975 AMC Pacer and weirdos like the Isetta, an Italian microcar whose entire front end swings open to admit the driver and one (slim) passenger.
As for the staging, think of it as akin to Disney World’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. Except, instead of being in a boat, you’re in an electric golf cart. And instead of a tale of privateering, you get to view nine scenes forming a story about immigration, climate change and the future of automobiles.
“It is truly mind-boggling,” said “Autonomy” playwright Ken LaZebnik, an old buddy of Reuler’s from Macalester College. “I think this is the ninth play I’ve written for Jack over the course of 35 years and it just dwarfs everything else in its ambition, its scale and Jack’s audacity.”
According to Mr. Audacious, it’s the biggest project in 43 years of Mixed Blood. And it’s not even close.
“It will probably cost over $165,000 for a four-day run and even that is possible only because the people who own the cars have been incredibly generous and so have the people at RiverCentre,” Reuler said. “The number of things we have gotten that we don’t have to pay for is remarkable.”
LaZebnik worked on “Autonomy” for two years, he said. But it wasn’t until the Los Angeles playwright arrived in Minneapolis for rehearsals last month that he believed it would really come together.
“I have never been more excited about a theatrical production,” LaZebnik said. “This is your one chance in a lifetime to see something like this. I guarantee you that nobody will ever do this again. It’s too expensive. It’s too difficult to pull off.”
But what is “it,” exactly? Our User’s Guide will help theatergoers put the pieces together.
How does it work?
“Autonomy” features nine 8-minute scenes, each performed repeatedly over the course of the evening. Everyone sees the play in the same order, though, beginning with a scene in which teenage Gabby looks on helplessly while the character’s father (played by Juan Rivera Lebron) dies after crashing his semi truck. At the end of each scene, there’s a two-minute gap allowing for carts to drive to the next scene.
Showtimes begin at 10-minute intervals (6:30 p.m., 6:40 p.m., 6:50 p.m., etc.), with about two dozen tickets available per time period. Each cart fits four to six people, one of whom will be the driver. And each scene plays to several carts at once, with a tour guide there to assist.
Most of the actors — including Harry Waters Jr. and Taj Ruler — appear in only one live scene, performed 12 times throughout the course of a single evening. Almost all of the cast appears in a short film that will be projected as the eighth scene, in a drive-in-movie-like setup. And Gabby appears in three scenes, which is accomplished by having a trio of actors play the role (Isabella Star LaBlanc, Malachi Caballero and Kiko Laureano).
Viewers will receive tablets and earbuds, through which they’ll hear the actors as well as additional sounds and music.
What’s it about?
“Autonomy” is set in February 2022. The tragedy in the first scene sends brilliant Gabby on a quest to create open-sourced technology that allows vehicles to communicate with each other. The plan is to pave the way for autonomous cars, which will be friendlier to the environment and equipped to prevent the kinds of accidents that killed Gabby’s dad. A native of Mexico, Gabby is also a dreamer. Once Big Business creeps learn of an invention that could endanger their financial interests, they enlist immigration authorities in an effort to eliminate Gabby as a threat.
Woven into that story are vignettes that add context, such as the Siberia-set second scene, where thawing permafrost releases deadly but valuable gases (James Denton plays a Russian scientist). The backdrop for that scene is several flame-themed vehicles, including a 1940 Chevy coupe. (The first scene, in which Gabby’s father can’t free himself from his semi, features cars with unusual means of egress, including a Lambo with scissor doors and a Messerschmitt you enter from the top.)
Who’s it for?
Reuler hatched the idea more than a decade ago at St. Paul’s annual “Back to the ’50s” car show.
“The Minnesota Street Rod Association cruises up and down Snelling and University and people pull out their lawn chairs to ooh and aah,” said Reuler, who borrowed cars from dozens of area collectors for the new show. “Every year, I’d watch that and think, ‘There is something the arts could learn from here. People are coming out, they’re spending this time and, for them, these cars are art.”
Subsequently, Reuler attended a show in Texas about the life of Christ. It required theatergoers to drive from scene to scene, over several miles, to experience the play. He loved it.
“Site-specific theater will become much more of the norm,” he said. “This is part of what the future of our field looks like.”
Reuler’s hope is that “Autonomy” will attract car enthusiasts who don’t go to much theater and performing arts lovers who don’t know much about cars. He also thinks those who are passionate about climate change can come for the message and, in the process, fall for the beauty of cars and theater.
Confused about tickets? This show works differently from other Mixed Blood plays. The theater retains its “Radical Hospitality” offer of free tickets, available while supply lasts. But, for ticket purchases, theatergoers must use Ticketmaster because RiverCentre has a prior arrangement with the firm.
If you’re not sure where to park, there’s street parking that can last you through the 90-minute show and several nearby ramps. (Reuler considered setting “Autonomy” in the RiverCentre ramp, but its ceilings are too low and its power sources too scarce.)
Are there refreshments? Yes, in the RiverCentre concourse.
What to bring? Nothing, but you can bring your own earbuds, which you may prefer to the supplied ones.
What if I have special needs? There’s an ASL performance May 7 at 7:40 p.m. for those with hearing impairments.
Should I feel guilty about driving my car to downtown St. Paul to see “Autonomy?” No. But Reuler added: “Once you see the show, you may question whether you should drive home. Or anymore, at all.”
Do I need my driver’s license? If you’re driving to the show, yes, but not for “Autonomy.”
What if I’m late? You’d better not be. The show needs to run like clockwork. There’s no time for delays and tickets are limited, so there may not be seats for the next show.