This summer, Lagado University established itself as a major player at the cutting edge of American theater. Angels’ Hair for Rent in Calcutta, OH, written and directed by Jonathan Raspberry, LU Professor of English and Musicology, opened July 24 at the Galaxy Theater and Opera House in Bismarck, North Dakota. This was its first performance since the pioneering rap ‘n’ roll opera was introduced to an academic public at Lagado University’s Lulu Kaposi Thanatopoulos Theatre in May 1998.

The beau monde of Bismarck turned out in the tuxedos and gowns it usually reserves for the town’s annual New Year’s Eve charity ball. The author/director, surveying the crowded theater amidst the camphorated breezes wafting stagewards as the ticket holders flipped quizzically through their programs, predicted that July 24 would be remembered as the day when he, Jonathan Raspberry, reclaimed North Dakota’s theater from stagnation and empty spectacle. Here before them, as he told his cast and supporters, sat a representation of the North Dakotan MTV generation, unconsciously yearning for a Profoundly Meaningful theatrical experience. He felt this, he said, in the very marrow of his bones.

Undeniably the most important theatrical event in the history of Lagado University and of Kafka, South Dakota, Angels’ Hair for Rent in Calcutta, OH has been hailed by LU’s English faculty as “The Analytical/Didactical Rap ‘n’ Roll Opera of the Millennium.” All of his colleagues agree that Raspberry’s score achieves the astonishing feat of marrying the traditional American musical’s sense of blessing to the postmodernist celebration of blight.

The author draws rich and ironic parallels between the milieu of Rossini’s Barber of Seville and the gritty, uplifting reality of downtown Kafka’s dynamic street life of seedy grad students, nomadic adjuncts, displaced bumpkins, glue-snuffling frat boys, beer-guzzling feedlot attendants, and South Dakota’s only transvestite corn and soybean merchant, Sam “Strokes” Stokes.

From this churning social detritus, mixed with the rich compost fermenting inside his own skull. Raspberry grows a rectal thermometer with which to take the moral temperature of contemporary America. Poverty, not abundance, is the musical’s issue. It is Christmas, and the holiday provides an ironic frame for the uncharitable events of ” . . . Rent . . . ,” which include the withdrawal of unemployment benefits from a group of aspiring artists and the relentless demands of their ruthlessly greedy landlord that they pay their rent—an obvious impossibility, since the arrears stretch back to 1988.

Every assumption of the traditional musical has been stood on its head. The old romance of triumph has been replaced by the new romance of doom, disease, and despair at the menace of working for a living. In the New Musical, lovers don’t meet cute; they meet infected, injected, and dejected. Slocum Tenens (Randy Randome), a young hairdresser impoverished by the bankruptcy of his Seville Salon of Scissors Arts and Wig Rentals, is struggling to construct the perfect toupee before his light is snuffed out when he falls for Miwi (Mary-Trixie Lopez-Gomez), a strung-out “lesbodancer” at the Kalcutta Koochee-Kooch Truck Stop; both are HIV-positive. The drag queen Lester (Tyrone Chlones) camps up catastrophe in his seduction of Wilbie (the misty-voiced Wambert Weems), an earnest young narratologist who ends up end-up. “Yes, Yes,” Lester sings, “I’m a hell of a mess / Under this dress.” Igor (the gassy-voiced Damian Hearse), a decomposition artist working in cow cadavers who bears witness to the group’s struggles, asks, “What makes a society tick /When it lets you get frightfully sick / Just because you dipped your wick?”

Death, homelessness, and the looming hell of steady employment provide the climate in which this musical lives. The aroma of ” . . . Rent . . . ” may not be sweet, but neither is it sour. Its combination of gravity and grace is best expressed in the opening of Act II, when 40 latex-clad actors with bullhorns come to the foot of the stage and exuberantly perform “Bon Voyage.” The song is a paean to the triumph of eros over a dull straight world. It is also a kind of epitaph:

To pederasty

the kid’s a blast; he

looks so cute in his birthday suit

I could swoon, I could flip

What a trip!

To my lover and me,

(the strap makes three)

as we merge with the scourge

and I hear his flesh rip.

What a trip!

To the chain and the whip.

I writhe in their grip

As I beg and blubber

With trembling lip

What a trip!

To sexual diversities

And multiple perversities

To stylish catastrophes

And trendy calamities

To all the fun when the lesions run

And the pus goes drip, drip, drip

God what a trip!

The glittering, inventive score and crisp, juicy lyrics of AHRCO’s 8B songs are fortified and augmented by the musical’s six hours of dialogue and four of monologue (it has 21 acts, two lunch breaks, two dinner breaks, and six intermissions spaced over two days). This fusion of bulk and density, unheard of and unimagined in the whole history of American musical theater, allows the author to address every single loathsome horror incipient, inherent, and prevalent in American society in recent decades, and to school the audience in appropriate responses to each one. Hate radio, suffocating sexual puritanism, ubiquitous right-wing militias, private property, violence against women, tobacco, bloody homophobic pogroms, deregulation, the National Rifle Association, tax-cutting agitation. Sen. Jesse Helms, parental consent—all of it—are subjected to the full range of relevant critical theory. And racism, too, of course.

Nor are the traditional favorites neglected: “J. Edgar Hoover in Hell” is one of the most powerful songs in the whole “Rentian” melange; Richard Nixon’s career is covered in 80 verses. In Act 13, the dreams and hungers of decades are gathered into a single lyrical and impassioned hymn of hope: “Your Time Will Come You Right-Wing Scum.”

The thoroughness of this deployment and exposition of acceptable sentiments is only the most conspicuous of the many exciting innovations in the Raspberrian repertoire. The director’s inclusivity choreography sets new standards for the American theater. Not only are the play’s characters 100 percent HIVite; so is the entire cast! The 1990 census is exactly reflected in an array of talent which is 12.1 percent Afro-American, 9 percent Hispanic- American, 0.3 percent Japanese- American, .00025 percent Samoan, and so forth. (The fractional percentages are obtained by skillful multiple rotation of the understudies.) Most exciting of all, the composition is exactly 3.9 percent Other-American—the first time this voiceless and neglected minority has received the affirmative action so long denied it. Moreover, the set designs are differently abled-accessible.

Professor Jonathan Raspberry puts his own single-minded pursuit of his craft, his drive to redeem his time on earth, into Slocum’s climactic “Toupee or Not Toupee,” an apotheosis that brought tears to every unshut eye in the Lulu Kaposi Thanatopoulos Theatre.

One toupee


One perfect toupee

Before I cease to be


One green and purple toupee

Shimmering like a sunset

A bright, eternal flame

On my lover’s naked nog-nog.

Angel’s Hair for Rent in Calcutta, OH closed at the Galaxy following its first intermission when it was noticed that the audience had failed to return to its seats. The Bismarck & Burleigh Grangers’ Clarion reviewer completely failed to grasp that he had been witness to the effort of a sophisticated culture trying to create a more inclusive art. His review was the shortest in the Clarion‘s history: “To dismiss AHRCO as a cacophonous pandemonium of polymorphous perversity would be easy. Vide supra: quod erat faciendum.”

On July 25, Raspberry informed his colleagues of his unshakable determination to leave North Dakotan theater in the slough of stagnation and vapid spectacles it so richly deserves. If adequate financing can be obtained, he hopes to reopen his musical near-near-off-off Broadway sometime in October.