Ben Turk's cell phone keeps cutting out. The Ohio-based actor-playwright is in a car out west, driving with his Insurgent Theatre partner, Kate Pleuss, and hardcore Milwaukee noise musician Peter J. Woods. They are on a tour of Homeric proportions, performing Turk's Ulysses' Crewmen and Woods' compositions at small, DIY-friendly venues along a route spanning the central and western U.S. Now they are heading to Madison for a performance at the Faux-Op on July 28.
This will be the third performance here for Ulysses' Crewmen. Turk reckons he spent seven years writing it. At one point, he says, it was a sprawling two-act with a cast of eight. Now it has been distilled to an hour-long radical minimalist production for Pleuss and himself.
Inspired by Homer's Odyssey, the drama endeavors to refute the lessons Turk perceives in Ulysses' punishment of his mutinous crewmen: that faith and reverence demand passive obedience at the expense of critical thought and self-preservation. Setting this reaction in a contemporary context, he uses the kidnapping of a U.S. trade official as a mechanism to rage against the machine.
"We're talking about global empire and what's necessary to confront it," he explains. He wants the audience to take away a sense of urgency, "to be more personally invested and personally more introspective about our places in the global economy."
Ulysses' Crewmen can be rough going: inflammatory, confrontational, demanding guerrilla theater, not for the faint of heart. Turk, Pleuss and Woods have grown accustomed to members of the audience walking out on their tour stops, unable to tolerate the material. There have been isolated police calls for noise complaints. This is counterbalanced, Turk says, by the gratification he finds in those who stay and engage in discussions of his play's themes after the show.
Woods' music is an ideal match for the drama, says Turk, describing his friend's compositions as "pretty intense and kind of unpleasant." Woods finds in Turk a kind of symbiotic camaraderie. Like the playwright, he has very specific ideas he wants to get across to his audience, but sometimes struggles to convey these ideas to people who may lack the means to talk about the kind of music he makes. And he shares with Turk a revulsion toward apathy and compromise.