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Rest in Pee 

Bob Ernst's gritty, energetic solo opera brings philosophy into the men's room

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
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The strangest moment in The John, Bob Ernst's "pocket opera" about a guy meeting Death in the men's room, has Ernst himself transformed into the moon. He frames his face between two hands, in a tight round spotlight, widens his eyes, and paraphrases a poem from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. "Doesn't he know there is nothing between us but the emptiness? Emptiness under an empty moon." His coarse, mocking voice is strangled and high; his movements are choreographed into a quiet dance; and a musician plays a tinkling tune on a finger organ. The John is, for the most part, a violent, occasionally comic wrestling match between "Mr. D himself" and Alvin, who suffers a brain hemorrhage. Ernst plays both characters -- except during this moon scene, when he steps away, a remote, disinterested figure, to quote Bergman, with the weird but beautiful logic of a nightmare.

It takes guts as well as talent to mount a one-man opera, and Ernst has both the experience and the sense of humor to pull it off. He co-founded the legendary Blake Street Hawkeyes and has done solo work locally since 1973. Rinde Eckert scored a more disciplined solo-opera success a couple of years ago with Ravenshead, but that piece resorted to the kind of tuneless classical music that can turn off a casual audience. Ernst is grittier. He's an Eckert with Tom Waits tendencies. Using a minimal band of two blues guitars and some incidental percussion, along with his own gravelly voice, Ernst creates a harrowing dreamscape out of a simple, almost tawdry death.

The story is slight. Alvin's wife has just died in a car wreck, and after a month of solitary grieving, he decides to see a performance of King Lear. During intermission he goes to the john, where a long piss gives him occasion to sing an aria with bathroom graffiti for lyrics. Death comes in, talking on a cell phone. He takes the urinal next to Alvin's, and Alvin, after a friendly chat, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. The rest of the show is a slow-motion struggle that feels almost physical. Alvin gives a long, bluesy yawp of fear, vowing not to "go gentle" -- it's energetic and harrowing and hard for a critic to resist.

Ernst plays a surprising range of characters. In a silver wig and Burger King crown he does a short, overwrought turn as Lear; then he rips off the costume and plays Alvin, clapping, pretending to enjoy the show. Later he plays the moon, as well Alvin in a number of angry or terrified moods. Each transformation is instant, and each segment sharply defined; director Jim Cave has helped Ernst find a rough but graceful choreography, so he moves through each scene like an arthritic ballet dancer.

"After a second episode," narrates one of the musicians, in one impressive scene, "Alvin is paralyzed in the corner stall." But Alvin stands; his mind is alert, even hopeful, and he hops on one foot toward a single footlight in a wash of languid blues. Is it really he, or is it just his imagination? "What is that din?" he sings. "Is someone coming in?/ Someone comin' in -- to save me?"

The impeccably named Andy Dinsmoor and G.P. Skratz play the score on a pair of acoustic guitars. Alvin's stream of piss is evoked with a swirling finger-slide noise, and the confused, raucous, or scatological songs have just enough distortion on them to make Dinsmoor and Skratz sound like a full electric band. Some of Ernst's songs are doggerel; others try to make music out of something ill-advised, like a detailed medical description of a brain hemorrhage. None of the lyrics would be good poetry by itself. But Ernst makes poetic use of Bergman's lines about the moon, and the clash of sounds overall is jarring but expressive.

Alvin's struggle comes with a built-in sense of its own absurdity. How do you understand death, anyway? Or dramatize it? Near the end, the elusive Mr. D interrupts Alvin's final throes to explain a certain symbol, and lapses into a philosophical rant about identity and the soul that should be a massive dramatic flaw. But it's delivered with so much old-coot conviction -- so much ridiculous energy -- that I kind of enjoyed it. No one can talk with authority about oblivion, but you can't blame Ernst for trying.

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