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The Arts

Mennonites not funny? Well, you're wearing pants!

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/4/2011 (2182 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ARMIN Wiebe thinks Mennonites are misjudged if they are seen as humourless, religious pacifists who spend their days singing and shunning in southern Manitoba.

"The image of the poor, serious Mennonite may be handy as PR but it's not the reality," says Wiebe, 62. "Mennonites are a people who love to laugh. They are always telling jokes, making dummheit, doing crazy things."

Wiebe was born in Altona and grew up speaking three languages.

JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA

Wiebe was born in Altona and grew up speaking three languages.

Wiebe, who was born in Altona and grew up between Highway 75 and the Pembina Hills, is considered one of those comedic Mennonite writers, a group whose best-known member is Steinbach-product Miriam Toews.

"She is very funny and very serious," Wiebe says during a recent interview. "Di Brandt and Patrick Friesen are very funny people in person but in their writing it doesn't come out the same way. David Bergen is very funny but not in his books."

Since his 1984 debut novel, The Salvation of Yasch Siemens -- a humorous coming-of age-story -- Wiebe has woven comedy into his literary output, especially in Murder in Gutenthal: A Schneppa Kjnals Mystery (1991) and The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst (1995).

It was Yasch Siemens that first brought the easy-to-laugh Fort Rouge resident to the attention of then-Prairie Theatre Exchange artistic director Kim McCaw. He loved the book, especially its distinctive dialogue, a curious concoction of Mennonite Plautdietsch, High German and buggered-up English

"I told him I would love to hear that language on stage and see those colourful characters," recalls McCaw, a drama professor at the University of Alberta.

McCaw is getting his wish with tonight's premiere of Wiebe's first play, The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, which has taken a circuitous route to the stage of Theatre Projects Manitoba, thanks to numerous twists of fate.

In 1995, Wiebe was writer-in-residence at the Dauphin library and during one free writing period he joined his students and tapped into a family memory in which his grandfather had gone berry picking and used the wrong leaves after answering a call of nature.

"He caught a severe case of poison ivy in the crotch area that was so severe that he couldn't wear trousers," recalls Wiebe, who retired as a creative writing teacher at Red River College in 2008. "He had to wear a dress to do the harvest. That's all I knew of the story."

That episode was fleshed out into the short story And Besides God Made Poison Ivy. Its publication left him with the feeling there could be more there, perhaps a novel, but maximizing the tale proved elusive. Fast-forward a few years, and Wiebe found himself in a playwriting course taught by McCaw, who left PTE in 1997. Again Wiebe submitted the poison ivy incident, which lives on in Beethoven Blatz.

What he calls a comic folk play focuses on Obrun Kehler, a young man who goes to town to buy his wife Susch a washing machine but comes home with poison ivy, a broken piano and a wanna-be Beethoven who has fled the Russian revolution.

It is written in the same idiosyncratic dialect first heard in Yasch Siemens.

"When I grew up we spoke three languages and we used them all," says Wiebe, whose last novel Tatsea won the 2004 McNally Robinson Book of the Year. "We had English for school, High German for church and Low German for the rest of life. The Low German can be very earthy and lots of fun. It is a blend of English with mixed-up syntax and strange words."

His characters speak in the Low German tradition of "talking through the flower," which refers to speaking in metaphors. When people don't say what they really mean, problems can arise, and they do in Beethoven Blatz.

"It's people talking with double meaning, people saying one thing but with a clear intention of meaning something else," says McCaw. "It's kind of a code."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

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