Sod House Theater and the Chmielewski Funtime Polka Band in "Hoopla Train"
A blonde-haired boy of about nine sat in a dimly lit room, waiting for his guardian to finish up work in the kitchen. A half-finished beverage–red, in a hurricane glass, and garnished with a celery stalk–sat next to him. He was absorbed in a game on his phone in this sleepy dance hall with very tired looking strings of lights highlighting a wooden floor that I imagined has seen whirlwinds of dance partners twirling by. The mood this particular afternoon was nearly not as upbeat as my imaginings of the past.
Turns out I was in the wrong dance hall. Phew! FOE Post #34 in Minneapolis is bigger than it looks on the outside; there are multiple entryways, multiple bars, and multiple dance halls. Home to the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, a national nonprofit organization that helps build and support communities with programming, service, and meeting spaces. I was in this curious place to see the Minneapolis debut of Sod House Theater’s Hoopla Train, created by Jim Lichtscheidl and the Sod House Ensemble in collaboration with the Chmielewski Funtime Polka Band (a fixture in the polka music scene for over 100 years).
Once the bartender in the front section of the venue set me straight, I made my way over to the performance. I opened the two wooden doors to a room warmed by brownish-yellow overhead light. Creamsicle orange and sweet corn yellow fabrics were draped from the ceiling. A weathered ceiling fan spun wildly, wobbling so much that I wondered if it might fly off. Pictures of folks that might be some of my mother’s relatives smiled down from the walls. A large poster cheered out, “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.” My sense was that much of the décor I saw was no different than what would normally be seen in that room.
Tables with high-backed banquet hall chairs surrounded a large wooden dance floor. A few guests had arrived before me and were seated at the tables, chatting with one another. Mixed in were the performers. They wore overalls; loose-fitting suits; floral, flowing, and fringed fringe dresses. Many of them had elaborate hairstyles, wigs, and curious hats. The polka band drummer’s hat looked like a smokestack, and with the touch of a button, he made smoke puff out of the top.
The event began with an explanation of how the production would go. The audience was invited to dance for 10 minutes. Then, we were encouraged to sit down and watch the “live taping” of a variety show as a “live-studio audience.” Every 20 minutes or so, the show took a “commercial break” and audience members were invited back on the dance floor.
Two hours later, the experience concluded, I left the venue, still unsure about the answer. Was it a play? Dance party? Dance performance? Talent show? Imagine that a Christopher Guest film and the TV show American Bandstand had an art baby. That’s what it felt like.
There were awkward elements. Some, like when the band leader invited the audience out to the dance floor with an enthusiastic “Everybody Polka!”, reminded me of similarly tenuous times at weddings and school dances. The floor stays empty for a moment, everyone is uncomfortable. But, the band was great and they kept encouraging us to dance no matter, chiding, “It’s only as fun as you make it, so get out on that dance floor.” The floor was eventually filled in 2 minutes.
There were fuzzy elements. What year was it supposed to be? It felt like a mix of multiple decades, but the choice didn’t seem intentional. There were also moments that I could have done without: the “All women are nags” humor (no matter what year it was supposed to be, enough already); the Backwards Talking Man bit that veered dangerously close to sounding like an imitation of a person with special needs; and other pieces of sketch comedy that bordered on mockery.
But there were breathtaking moments as well: a room full of strangers twirling colorful tissue paper and singing in unison; senior citizens lighting up as they danced with their partners on the dance floor; a four-year-old audience member taking the stage as a talent show contestant with a particularly clever Frozen-themed joke; a musical puppet show punctuated with a flourish of confetti; and me, panting as I galloped around the floor by some friendly cast members.
Polka is cardio! And it was fun. Would I do it again? Absolutely.