Art beat // Twenty years in the Jungle

Lyn-Lake’s landmark theater celebrates two decades

WHITTIER — During a recent conversation, Bain Boehlke, the founder and artistic director of the Jungle Theater, returned again and again to a favorite metaphor.

“It is always fluid,” Boehlke said. “Life is fluid. Theater, especially, is fluid, although it does have these arbitrary time definitions.”

“Opening night,” he added, for an example. “They’re brutal.”

Another one of those arbitrary time definitions was approaching as Boehlke spoke one snowy morning in early February, having just arrived at his landmark Lyn-Lake theater. Still wrapped in a scarf and with a stocking cap perched on his head, he was sunk into a couch in the theater’s profusely decorated, jewel box of a lobby as he considered the Jungle’s upcoming 20th anniversary season.

“To me, 20 years is like — it’s a day at a time,” he said. “It’s imperceptible. The river is wide and the river is deep.”

Theater and life, both flowing around him, through him, like a river. The two — and this will come as no surprise to those who’ve met Boehlke — are inextricably tied in his conversation.

Boehlke, 70, recently came off a yearlong sabbatical, during which he spent time in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, as well as at his home in Minneapolis just a few blocks from the theater. It was a break afforded by his being named last year the 2009 McKnight Distinguished Artist, a recognition that comes with a $50,000 prize.

While in Hawaii, Boehlke settled in for a time at a little beachside bungalow. The beach is an environment that seems to activate the Warroad native’s remarkable powers of imagination; in the often-repeated origin story of the Jungle, it was while dozing in a hammock on the Pacific coast of Mexico that a vision of a poster with the words “the Jungle” popped into his head.

It’s a favorite story of the veteran actress Wendy Lehr, who has known Boehlke for the better part of four decades. Lehr plays Madame Arcadi in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” a comic play set in motion by a séance with unintended consequences, which opens the anniversary season.

“Bain is tremendously imaginative,” she said. “It’s breathtaking actually, because he’ll just get an incredibly original idea and talk you through it and just make you see it — so, of course it’s been very handy for him as a director. I think he probably was born that way.”

That imagination is given form on the stage of the Jungle. A hallmark of the theatre its intricately realized productions — what assistant artistic director Joel Sass termed  “theatrical naturalism.”

Sass credited a cadre of skilled craftspeople, designers and technicians with making that work possible. But there’s also something about the Jungle, with just 150 red velvet seats facing the black box stage, that sometimes transforms skilled acting, directing and production into more than the sum of its parts.

Sass, who directs “Blithe Spirit,” called the Jungle “the ultimate intimate theater experience in the Twin Cities.”

What happens on stage is one thing, but what has happened outside the theater is another part of the Jungle’s story. When Boehlke opened the theater in 1991 on Lake Street (kitty-corner from the current location, basically), Lyn-Lake was a very different place.

“There were a lot of nefarious bars in this neighborhood, sex shops,” he recalled. “This building, where the theater is now, was a bar that had more 911 calls than any other location in the Twin Cities.”

“So, this was really a rough neighborhood and, as far as a business intersection, also a neighborhood in decline,” he added.

Boehlke would not take sole credit for the intersection’s long, slow turnaround, which was abetted by the city, the Whittier Alliance neighborhood association and long-time businesses like It’s Greek to Me. But he and many others believe the Jungle was a catalyst for change, drawing a new crowd and new attention to the area in the form of glowing reviews and near-annual awards.

The theater’s new neighbors are trendy bars and restaurants, and blocks of condos and apartments crowded with young professionals.

Boehlke was adamant in his view of theater as a kind of living, flowing thing — an energy that can only be channeled by actors, a director and his crew. The real magic of theater, he said, transpires between the players and the audience.

For the Jungle to survive another 20 years, at least some of that audience must be the theatre’s new neighbors — both the condo-dwellers, but the crowds once again flowing through Lyn-Lake.

“We are of the community, and this is what’s so important,” Boehlke said. “I think about the Jungle, and I think its deepest sensibility is that it is an important part of community understanding, of our understanding ourselves. It can be.”

Go see it

“Blithe Spirit,” running Tue–Sun through Mar. 28, opens the 20th anniversary season at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S. 822-7063.