It’s tough being outré these days.
Out There, Walker Art Center’s annual performance series that adds a little heat to the Twin Cities’ live-entertainment options each January, is by definition meant to challenge mores, flout convention and skirt the edges of good taste. But in a world where what once was weird now seems normal, Out There has shifted gears a bit with acts intended to provoke thought, and mix stage and screen art in new ways, more than deliver the same old shock.
The four shows in this year’s series, which begins Thursday, have a couple of elements tying them together, said Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither.
“Each show takes a different tack toward what theater is today, how it still has the ability to surprise,” said Bither, who sees 150 to 200 shows annually in his quest to keep the Walker’s live offerings fresh. “Each one also has real heart, a deep connection to humanity.”
The first week’s presentation, “RoosevElvis” (Jan. 7-9), pairs larger-than-life American he-men of very different natures and reputations — Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley — in what Bither calls “a gender-bending reflection on what America stands for, both an embrace and a critique.”
Presented by the Team, which performed at the Walker several years ago, the story takes the ghosts of Elvis and Teddy on an imaginary trip from the Badlands to Graceland while sparring over the soul of a meatpacker. We have to admit, it’s unlikely anyone has combined these particular scenarios before.
Next comes an experiment from Daniel Fish, a multimedia artist with traditional theatrical training who is receiving much buzz in New York (Jan. 14-16).
You might think that of all the modern literary giants whose work should be read silently to oneself rather than aloud to a crowd, David Foster Wallace would be near the top. But Fish, with the permission of the late writer’s estate, mixes recordings of Wallace himself with actors reading from his most loved works (including “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) and 3,000 flying tennis balls to great effect, Bither said.
“The tennis balls allude not only to the author’s love of the sport, but the idea of his words being lobbed so fast at the reader. With Fish right on stage with them, shaping the energy and flow, the actors have to try to figure out and catch up with Wallace’s words, even the footnotes, and it creates this electricity.”
That weekend also includes a Fish-concocted film mashup that sounds rather patience-trying. But Bither insists it’s fascinating if you go in fully committed. “Eternal” (1 p.m. Jan. 16, free) takes the final four minutes of the Charlie Kaufman-scripted film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and re-creates the scene with two actors on separate screens, repeating the same lines over the course of two hours with varied pacing, tone and body language.
“You know who told me I just had to book Fish?” Bither said. “Sally Wingert.” It was quite satisfying, he said, to tell one of the Guthrie’s best known actors that he had done so.
The third featured work, “Riding on a Cloud” (Jan. 21-23), seems to most easily elicit automatic sympathy. But that would be missing the point.
During the 1980s Lebanese civil war, when innocent citizens risked their lives just walking down the street to buy groceries, visual artist Rabih Mroué’s brother Yasser was shot in the head by a sniper, resulting in permanent brain damage including communication-stifling aphasia and physical disabilities. The performance features Yasser as the main performer with assists from Rabih, who at one point goes on stage to help his brother strum a guitar.
“This isn’t a work for everyone,” Bither said. “It’s an intimate experience, but more cerebral than emotional. It’s about memory and how the brain works and reclaiming a lost life through the help of technology.”
Wrapping up the series is what promises to be, if Bither’s enthusiasm is any indication, a jaw-dropping take on what happens when four slacker pals in jeans and T-shirts are given the chance to re-create the world from scratch. “Germinal” (Jan. 28-30), the brainchild of French artists Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, begins on an empty stage that is built up as the show progresses.
“They have no language, and before your eyes, they construct meaning and a universe for themselves that touches on philosophy, science and ecology,” said Bither, who has been trying to cajole this one onto the Walker schedule for a few years. “It’s a macro view of the world, a clever use of art to investigate how humans communicate with each other.”
Oh, and also, “it’s weird and surprising.” Quite an endorsement, coming from a guy who’s seen a lot more of that sort of thing than most people. And just what we want in our Out There.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046