Narrative discipline never has been the raison d'être of the Moving Company, the troupe formed from the ashes of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Its genius derives from sharply defined caricatures who clown their way through thinly sketched scenarios. Such is the case in "Liberty Falls, 54321," a newly devised work that is directed by Dominique Serrand and is now playing at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis.
The premise is this: Liberty Falls is celebrating the birthday of Liberty Rose Johnson, who turns 105. Portrayed by Steven Epp, Liberty is the dotty embodiment of a small Wisconsin town built on guns and butter. She is racist, we find out, and her tendencies lean toward the Germanic.
Other townsfolk spend much of the first act preparing the "Cafenasium" (half cafeteria, half gymnasium) for the ceremony.
Jennifer Baldwin Peden is Francine, whose slur causes us to wonder if there's more than soda in that bottle of Diet Coke. She's got the cheap designer-jean knockoffs from J.C. Penney, the hideous leopard fur vest and spiked heels that pass for high fashion in the wooded wilds of the Badger State.
Christina Baldwin arrives as timid and deadpan Carmel (It's car-MEL, she keeps reminding everyone, not CAR-mel). Carmel is an odd duck whose performance actually sparks a bit of curiosity about her history.
Nathan Keepers generally is not about history when he devises his cartoon standups for the Moving Company (and this is meant in the best way). Here, he throws on a housedress and becomes Tamara, who seems slightly in charge of all this, though she says, "I don't want to step on anyone's toes."
The slack first act rests largely on the antics of these three, though Epp's Liberty eventually arrives and flips out to learn that her granddaughter is engaged to an African-American man. The shock renders her either dead or locked into a severe coma — "mostly dead," as we call it in the business.
Liberty's corpse is wheeled out in the second act and becomes a "Weekend at Bernie's" prop while the rest of the cast (which includes Heidi Bakke and Dom Wooten) barrel through a kind of divertissement on Liberty's origin story. This section, operatic and epic, has the most juice in the show — particularly because we get to hear the Baldwin sisters and Wooten open their throats and sing. And also because Epp is so adept at playing the corpse (more work than you'd think).
It's this kind of thing — imagery, myth and physical storytelling — that always has attracted us to Serrand's troupe. He remains one of the most innovative minds working in Twin Cities theater.
But "Liberty Falls" feels inflated with shtick and is capped by a blunt political message. One wishes Serrand and his gang might have honed its knives and carved a little deeper into the muscle of rifle country. We are left amused and for a brief moment enchanted, but ultimately unchanged.