Like many who wind up pursuing a life in the theatre, Camanche, Iowa, native Dave Bonde never intended to; his plan was to secure a B.A. in Mass Communication. Yet after appearing in his first theatrical production at St. Ambrose University in 1991, Bonde found himself hooked by the allure of the stage, partly because of its connection to his own field of study.
"I had never done theatre at all," says Bonde, "What fascinated me about it was that it was this really sophisticated form of communication. One that I had never seen before."
And one that he has seen - and been involved with - a great deal since.
Bonde is currently directing St. Ambrose's production of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind - a biting, occasionally surreal comedy-drama of family dysfunction and sibling dynamics. The play, first produced in 1985, is one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's most acclaimed works; Shepard's piece won both the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and Outer Critics' Circle Award for Best Play, and Newsweek's Jack Kroll raved about the work's "vibrant dialogue" and "mad, gut-bucket humor," adding that "the crowds that flock to it will have a lot to talk about. ... Shepard is a great poet of our theatre."
A Lie of the Mind is a tough-minded, frequently hilarious examination of two families that are quickly dissolving, and while Bonde's intitial career plans involved a study of communications, here he's exploring the flip-side; in A Lie of the Mind, Shepard's characters are hindered by what is oftentimes a crippling inability to communicate.
Bonde's unplanned immersion in theatre began, in fact, while working on a Mass Communications project at St. Ambrose. "There was a show going on there that I was writing for called What's Going on? - it was a sketch-comedy show that we were doing in television - and I attempted to continue that after the original people graduated." But after his old collaborators moved on, and a new group of St. Ambrose students began working with him on the program, Bonde found that they had a different vision for the program than he did - "My ideas were not well-received," he democratically states - and suggested that Bonde pursue a different path.
"Honestly, they just said, 'Take your creativity and go to theatre.' And so I did," he says with a laugh.
His first exposure to theatre came when Bonde was cast in a production of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, under the direction of Mike Kennedy, now an assistant professor of speech, theatre, and mass communication at St. Ambrose. (In a personal, ironic note, Bonde played the same role in Guare's serio-comedy - the borderline-psychotic Ronnie Schaughnessy - that this author played in his college production of Leaves.)
For Bonde, it was the beginning of what would become a lifelong passion. "I discovered that I really liked it," he says, adding that theatre "really enthralled me. That potential to reach out and touch people." He also found himself drawn more to directing than acting, as he was taken by "the ability to chase a concept or chase an idea" in theatre. "I liked the idea of using a script as a pretext to find a new life in a play that's been done maybe a dozen times before."
He went on to direct shows for the department's studio space, and - although he did receive that B.A. in Mass Communication - continue his theatrical education in northern California, where he earned an M.F.A. in Directing at Humboldt State University.
From there, Bonde's career arc took him back to Chicago, where, he says, "I wrote, performed in, and co-directed a couple different satires," and then back to California, where he directed theatrical productions and became involved with writing and directing for film. (If you ever get the chance to see the 12-minute surrealist comedy The Kool-Aid Man, which Bonde co-wrote and directed, you should. It's enjoyably, knowingly weird.)
Yet Bonde maintained his St. Ambrose connections throughout his cross-country treks, and was delighted when St. Ambrose Professor of Theatre Corinne Johnson called to gauge Bonde's interest in directing A Lie of the Mind; the assignment meshed perfectly with Bonde's recent decision to return to, and settle down in, the Midwest. (Bonde, who moved back to the Quad Cities last year, lives in Davenport with his wife, Amy, and their children Jack and Vivian.)
Beyond the appeal of directing for his alma mater, Bonde says that the chance to direct his first Sam Shepard play was a no-brainer. "I really do like his work," he says. "It's a nice blend of darkness and raw emotion and reality, along with just flat-out comedy. There's just tremendously funny stuff, and it hides in the strangest places in Shepard's plays" - referring, in part, to the laughs in A Lie of the Mind that are tied to the play's scenes of emotional - and sometimes physical - violence. "You never really discover it until you're actually in performance - what's really, truly funny."
All throughout A Lie of the Mind, Shepard finds humor in places where humor is unexpected, and all but unthinkable; we are invited to laugh at the dottiness of browbeaten mother Meg, and even at the victimized Beth, who, after a vicious beating at the hands of her husband, suffers from the speech disorder aphasia. Yet Shepard isn't hateful toward his characters. He sees them with genuine affection, as people trying - and often failing - to find their footing in an unstable world; the author frequently laughs at his characters' pains because, in exploring the traumas that often accompany the bonds of love we share with our own families, they are pains everyone can relate to.
"Some things in life are so hard to take that you can either laugh or cry," says Bonde. "You choose to do one or the other, and Shepard just chooses to laugh."
The show might be seen as a risky endeavor for St. Ambrose, but Bonde applauds the theatre department's decision to tackle it, and says that he, for one, isn't surprised by its selection. "Ambrose," he notes, "has always done shows that were off the beaten path."
Befitting a play that's off the beaten path, Bonde has been giving special consideration to the show's design, making the technical aspects as unusual - and unpredictable - as Shepard's characters. "This play is about the hopeless entanglement of complete opposites," he says, and in the Lie of the Mind set, Bonde explains that "we're finding a way to combine smooth and jagged elements within the same picture." The set design, which involves two different houses but one shared acting space, "is very fragmented. ... There are sections of it that are raked and sections that are flat," and hovering above - "to unify the halves," says Bonde - is a 14-foot-wide moon, which Bonde explains is "a symbol of passion, which has the possibility of being both beautiful and ugly."
Bonde's selection of music is similarly dichotomous: "We're putting on music from the '30s and '40s - some jazz, some American standards - that play a nice counterpoint to the gritty, dramatic elements in the piece. We sort of set the audience up for something that's not going to happen. We're going into it listening to this sweet, very sentimental music and then, all of a sudden - bam!"
And Bonde, having started his theatrical career as a performer - and continuing as one in May for New Ground Theatre's production of String Fever, directed by Corinne Johnson - is thrilled with the vigor with which his Lie of the Mind cast has embraced emotionally demanding roles. "They're really dedicated," he says of his actors, "and really hard-working. And they're all big risk-takers, so they push things. I'm really happy with their work."
The Lie of the Mind director reveals that, some time ago, Mike Kennedy made the observation that if you cast your shows correctly, "then your work as a director is all but done." He smiles and says, "I'm starting to see that."
St. Ambrose University will present performances of A Lie of the Mind in the Galvin Fine Arts Center on February 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., and February 19 at 3 p.m. For tickets, call (563)333-6251.