To the list of unlikely musical theater heroes that includes a murderous barber and a rapping secretary of the treasury, you can add "the fun face of environmental destruction."
Director Joel Sass is talking about the Minnesota legend who's the title character of world premiere satire "Log Jam! A Paul Bunyan Musical Spectacular." The oversized woodsman is the subject of folk tales, dating back a century, that detail his heroic adventures. But, according to Open Eye Theatre, the story is not so simple.
"He's well-beloved by many but he is also a figure who represents Indigenous displacement to many communities and, as a logger, he was a marketing figure in the tradition of Northwoods deforestation," Sass said. He began sawing over ideas with playwright/composer Josef Evans last winter, with an eye toward creating a show that could tour the state.
"Doing a Minnesota folklore project, Paul and Babe [his blue ox] are logical choices but we knew we needed to acknowledge the controversial contradictions of the character," he added.
Lest that make "Log Jam" sound like work, Sass said one thing he knew about one of the first shows staged as the pandemic recedes is that it needed to be a ton of fun — for artists and audiences alike.
"We're doing a burlesque of local folklore figures and creating a piece that is broadly humorous, based on the pantomime tradition and melodrama. And Joe Evans has a really great instinct for a kind of 'Simpsons'-esque, 'South Park' pop culture, snarky humor that appeals to multiple generations," said Sass, whose show — like Open Eye's sold-out "Bug Girl" — will be staged outdoors, on the rooftop of Minneapolis' Bakken Museum, with social distancing and masks required.
The snark, which the aptly named Sass likens to "kicking folklore in the shins," starts with Bunyan, played by Maren Ward. She's not a newcomer to deconstructing pop culture buffoons for Open Eye, having played the Jackie Gleason character in the theater's "The Honeymooner" sendup "To the Moon!," which also was written by Evans.
"It's a spoofy take on these characters, the way she plays them. And she's so good at them," said Evans of the family-friendly "Log Jam."
The playwright looked to another pop culture inspiration for his take on Bunyan — the Thor of "Avengers Endgame," lazily scratching his ample belly and chugging brewskis.
"That character of the hero who has let himself go and doesn't have his powers anymore — it's a great place for comedy," said Evans. "I thought it would be fun if Paul Bunyan was retired and out of shape and drinking beer all the time, almost this beach bum character. He's reminiscing about his glory days, how he used to be, and how he fell from grace."
Enter Babe, who's not your usual blue ox, if there is such a thing. Babe will be played by Antonio Rios-Luna.
"Babe and Paul are living their post-logging lives as a bickering odd couple," said Sass. "Babe is the voice of perspective and moral critique for all of Paul's failings. No longer a beast of burden, Babe is a scholar working to foment a worker's revolution."
In addition to making sure the show finds the fun factor, Sass said that as the creators developed it, they remained aware they were putting together what will be the first theatrical experience in months for many audience members.
As a result, he noted that audience members will need to bring their own lawn chairs, and are apt to be more comfy in them if the show's 45 minutes long, not two hours. As far as Open Eye artists, "Log Jam" will be staged in the round, which eliminates the need to spend time building an elaborate set. The outdoor setting also makes it possible to incorporate a 12-foot-tall puppet (designed by Steve Ackerman) that wouldn't even fit in Open Eye's tiny indoor space in south Minneapolis.
"In putting it together, we are prioritizing the joy of the process," Sass said.
Sass and Evans agreed that it felt appropriate to do a show in which the performers can acknowledge the audience, and vice versa. So "Log Jam" features an over-the-top villain (played by "Brave New Workshop" veteran Tom Reed), whom audiences will be encouraged to hiss at while he sings his big number, "Living Right Is Easy."
The large company, which includes eight actors, three musicians and two puppeteers, is all vaccinated and all ready to do the things they love but have not been able to do for more than a year.
"With where we are, coming out of COVID, I think there's some resonance in the show that will sneak up on people," Evans said.
"There were a couple of times in our rehearsal period where I was really moved by the communal energy of friends and — at the moment, some strangers — finding beautiful harmony, literally and also as creative makers, something I feel I had taken for granted," Sass said.
He and Evans said they've been thinking of their return to theater as a chance to rethink old ways of doing things and, not unlike what happened after loggers such as the fictitious Bunyan clear-cut forests, a time for regermination.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
When: 7 p.m., Wed.-Sun., May 27-June 20.
Where: Bakken Museum rooftop, 3537 Zenith Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $15-$30 (includes museum admission), openeyetheatre.org.