If you enjoyed rock in Minneapolis during the ‘80s — if you treasure decades-old memories made at First Avenue, or if you rushed to buy tickets for the Replacements’ Midway Stadium reunion show — you might want to see Complicated Fun, a show playing at the History Theatre until May 29. Written by Alan Berks and directed by Dominic Taylor, the play is a march down memory lane for a certain demographic, spotlighting music by bands such as the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and the Suburbs.
Complicated Fun, which is named after a Suicide Commandos song, wraps together a few stories: a familiar boy-meets-girl romance (literally so, since the characters are called “Boy” and “Girl”), the tale of two record store clerks (played by Joseph Miller and Rupert Angeleyes/Joey Joey Michaels member Skyler Nowinski; H. Adam Harris shows up as a clerk, too, but with many fewer lines), and a fictionalized history of First Avenue’s ’80s ups and downs. The main character, though, is nostalgia; Complicated Fun’s plot comes packaged with Reagan- and Mondale-themed jokes, references to the Metrodome, and harkenings to the good old days of rock.
The set, designed by Michael Hoover, also has some distinct components. The house band, led by music director Nic Delcambre, play upstage on a raised platform, and just below them are Steve McClellan (First Avenue’s resident curmudgeon with a heart of gold, played by Josh Carson) and the rest of the First Avenue crew. The record store and the Girl-and-Boy story take turns downstage, and the play’s ensemble shifts to dance wherever the action is.
The young characters in Complicated Fun are sincere and wide-eyed. The Girl (Stephanie Bertumen) aspires to play her own music after falling for bands at First Avenue. The Boy (Bowen Cochran), a naive suburban transplant, finds a place at rock concerts and a friend in the Girl. Together, they exclaim about new music they’ve discovered.
The clerks exhibit endless music snobbery, spending a lot of time on Replacements-vs.-Hüsker-Dü arguments. The script is cheeky, making jokes at the expense of easy targets Olivia Newton-John and Lionel Richie. “Rap music isn’t even music,” the Boy says — an observation I interpreted as tongue-in-cheek, though I noticed some other audience members nodding sympathetically.
Eerily, Prince gets several mentions in the play (although none of his work made it into the show, presumably due to music rights issues). The Boy runs onstage in a Purple-Rain-esque suit, with ruffles and all, enthusing about the earth-shattering Prince show he just saw. Elsewhere, Steve and other First Avenue staff discuss the club’s Prince-motivated popularity boost and hint at the filming of Purple Rain. In a brief introduction on Saturday night before the play started, the real Chris Osgood, of the Suicide Commandos, gave a brief remembrance of Prince: “Last Thursday was pretty devastating for all of us […] A big piece of us is gone now.”
The play contains a few nods toward social justice: a black character commiserates with an Asian-American character about microaggressions, and the Girl tells the Boy that only “a—holes care” about whether or not someone is gay. Michael Jackson and Prince are both mentioned as important catalysts for breaking down segregation barriers in music. However, the show ultimately congratulates a single white character (McClellan) for his role in what was in fact a citywide shift toward integration, de-centering the experiences of artists of color.
The ’80s were a reckless time, according to the play. The threat of nuclear war looms often in-script, providing context for turbulent music and punk attitudes. “We’re all going to die […] anyway,” says the Boy’s cousin near the beginning of the show, encouraging him to relax.
Complicated Fun is a sweet, nostalgic play. Rife with obscure inside jokes (City Pages used to be called Sweet Potato! The Replacements’ Bob Stinson wore eccentric outfits!) and local music memories, it’s one representation of the scene 30 years ago — and it will remind longtime local rock fans what a long, strange trip it’s been.