Mysterious ways 

The Missoula Oblongata's prodigal return

There was a particularly memorable performance last summer at which everyone in the audience received cake, characters partook in a dramatic octopus hunt, and the theater—a nontraditional space with the ambiance of a bomb shelter—was expertly transformed into a seemingly star-studded romantic beachfront. It’s rare that a single show resonates so strongly over the course of a year, but such was the case with the aggressively imaginative and ingeniously inventive DIY show The Wonders of the World: Recite by fringe festival veterans The Missoula Oblongata.

How could this bootstrap troupe possibly upstage last year’s spectacle—and fit the production into their minivan for a three-month international barnstorming tour? With a new full-length play featuring a kaleidoscope convention, a bevy of dueling detective agencies staking out turf during the demise of Morse code, and a much-hyped “Match of the Century” that pits a parakeet against a kitten. The Most Mysterious Day of the Year, which debuts locally Friday, July 27, is just the latest oddity literally dreamed up by The Missoula Oblongata.

“Donna [Sellinger] and I collaborate in a very particular way,” explains co-founder Madeline ffitch (she prefers the lowercase) in a recent phone interview from the road. “We start with just making a list of everything we would like to do on stage. In this case, Donna wanted to fly and she wanted to play a bird. I wanted to play a detective and I wanted to have a giant kaleidoscope and balance on it. Those things seem to be pretty disjointed ideas, but in our initial phase we just want to disassociate ourselves from the final product and come up with a huge brainstorming list. And then we work on writing drafts from there…The collaboration is really based around trying to empower each other on an individual artistic level, to help the other person do pretty much whatever they want.”

If that all sounds impossibly idyllic and probably too weird to work, it’s not. The Missoula Oblongata has a history in its short two years of formal existence of audaciously overcoming obstacles and turning them into opportunities.

When so many extreme ideas threatened to make Wonders impenetrable to an unsuspecting audience, Sellinger and ffitch tinkered for months with the script. Although the play’s overwhelming assortment of props and trimmings were mesmerizing—the company uses secondhand items, found objects and MacGyver-like resourcefulness to construct its elaborate sets—the narrative turned out to be equally engaging.

Then, when the Missoula Fire Marshal was shutting down alternative venues last year for fire code violations, leaving the company with nowhere to perform, they went undercover and devised a secretive, invitation-only underground show. The success of that production—just imagine the clandestine appeal of showing up at a bar, for example, wearing a red carnation and waiting for an escort to point you toward the actual performance space—has led to more like it in bigger cities, even as the troupe has gained access to legitimate venues.

And, in perhaps The Missoula Oblongata’s most significant triumph, when the company was threatened with dissolution after ffitch left Missoula to pursue her master’s degree in Massachussettes, Sellinger and the company’s director, Sarah Lowry, followed to keep the collaboration alive. But even as they established themselves on the East Coast and became ingrained in the area’s expansive underground theater community, ffitch says they’ve stayed true to their Western roots.

“Missoula really helps to define our aesthetic,” she says, adding that the company doesn’t intend to change its name, since Missoula carries an increasingly valuable cachet on the fringe circuit following the successes of The Candidatos and her company both. “If you saw our show last year, you know we like inventory and we like to have a lot of things and we like to make everything ourselves. In Missoula, people are making things themselves all the time, there’s tons of free junk and free post-industrial stuff everywhere, and open spaces where you can make shows happen. A lot of imagination and creativity is put into everyday mundane things. I think we stand out with a particular sort of Montana way of doing things.”

In fact, The Missoula Oblongata has adopted another Missoula-based inspiration when it comes to planning summer tours. In order to reach the widest possible audience, and fill dates between stops at fringe festivals in Montreal, Toronto and Minneapolis, the company travels much like a rock band, playing anywhere there’s enough space and often bypassing traditional theaters. Even their Missoula show is a nod to the approach: local music promoter Niki Payton is in charge of setting up the performance.

“Underground bands have a really effective way of touring, and that’s what we do now,” ffitch says. “The community and the scene is really receptive all around the country for all kinds of performance, and I think people are really ready to see non-musical acts playing in warehouses and basements and backyards and farms.”

Plus, the setup allows The Missoula Oblongata to feed their insatiable whimsy by collaborating with other artists along the way.

“We tend to align ourselves with musicians and visual artists, and at some point realized we weren’t friends with very many people who were making straightforward theater,” ffitch says. “We don’t really think of ourselves as theater people, at least in the average sense of the word. We decided, instead of thinking that was just weird, let’s actually look at how that is feeding everybody and embrace it.”

The Most Mysterious Day of the Year plays Friday, July 27, and Saturday, July 28, at 8 PM at the Crystal Theatre. $7.
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