Monday, June 23, 2008

Dead Man's Cell Phone/Mysterious Elephant

Whimsy's a weird word. I actually went back and'd it this weekend to make sure my definition was for real. It wasn't. Kind of wasn't. I was leaning towards the 'excessively playful' end of the spectrum, but when the bottom line is 'anything odd or fanciful', the whole concept really turns to mush for me.

Why all the fuss over whimsy? Because I came out of Dead Man's Cell Phone baffled as to all of the whimsy I supposedly missed. The one thing I've managed to pick up from all the Sarah Ruhl rumblings over the past few months is that she's whimsical, whimsical being used in that pejorative sense of a word that has transformed from complimentary quirk to velvet glove insult, i.e. 'twee' or 'hipster'. And I don't see it. And I see it all over the place in Strange Tree Group's The Mysterious Elephant or the Rest of the Really Long Title, which everyone seems to agree is three sorts of awesome. I don't really have a greater point here that I'm aware of. I'm just a little confused.

Personally? I didn't mind Dead Man's Cell Phone. It was, to hearken back to, odd. Not good odd or bad odd, just odd odd. Polly Noonan is some kinda nutty, and whoever she signed a pact with to make her the go-to gal for Sarah Ruhl is some kinda brilliant, for both Noonan and Ruhl's sake. I can't for the life of me divorce Noonan's three sheets to the wind autistic 13-year-old Renee Zellweger routine from Ruhl's writing; and the thing is, I'm fairly certain that it's not a routine, and that, as fucked up as it may seem, an autistic teen viewpoint is the best entry into this script. It took me a good half of the first act to figure the mood out, but managed to settle into it just in time for some extremely touching material. Dwight and Jean's stationary store tryst is a lovely moment and illuminates the tone of the show brilliantly: all of these characters are wonderful, lovely, quirky, beautiful individuals trying to find themselves in themselves and in others. Where Dead Man differs from other shows of this bent is in not letting us into Jean and Dwight's world. The best comparison I could come up with was Amelie from an outsider's perspective. Because let's face it, without the sympathetic exposition, that French chick would be pretty fucking weird.

But therein lies the rub. I get the feeling that it's not Ruhl keeping me at arm's length; I just can't break through whatever the hell it is that Noonan is doing up there. It's great for the show either way, forcing my hand at letting Jean be who Jean is, but it's coming from a place that Noonan seems to have little control over and effectively covers up a couple of the more banal tidbits of Ruhl's words. It seems to be the theatrical equivalent of two wrongs making a right.

And then comes the second act, which I will lovingly refer to as The Hot Mess. This is where Ruhl loses me, and then gets me back, and then shoos me away again. In my post-show mind, Act II consists of four very distinct parts: the Dead Man's Monologue, Jean in South Africa, Jean in Hell, and The Recap. The reason they're so distinct in my mind is that they are so completely discordant with each other that I had to reboot my audience sensibilities for each part -- like a puzzle with four identical square pieces, I can put them together however I want and call it whole, but that doesn't mean the picture will make sense. Each piece of Ruhl's puzzle thrusts itself headlong in a different direction to the point where she's guaranteed herself both a win and a loss. For me the win was in the Dead Man's Monologue and The Recap (even though Jessica Thebus' direction sputtered off into the sunset for this last section), but Jean in South Africa? Big, big loss. Jean in Hell worked to a degree, but only because of the counterbalance of Noonan and Marc Grapey, certainly not Ruhl's meandering. But it's such an odd (again) mix that what works and what doesn't is going to be entirely scattershot throughout any given audience. The lady sitting behind me was quite vocal about how "insultingly offensive" she found the last 20 minutes. My roommate, on the other hand, loved the show. (Random tangent: We and two other pairs sitting around us somehow ended up as the perverse cabal of laughers. I swear to god we were the only ones laughing throughout the show and there were more than a few moments that made us laugh far louder and longer than I think was thought proper. I could feel the hatred beaming from a couple of less enthused audience members.)

I applaud, always applaud, anything that can effectively be that divisive. I would absolutely recommend the show, because it's bound to get you going in one direction or the other, maybe both at times. Nonetheless, almost a week later, the only real taste I still have in my mouth is one of ambiguity. It's odd.


On the flip side, for one of the best second acts I've seen in recent memory, check out The Mysterious Elephant and So On and So Forth. Emily Schwartz and co. are quickly on their way to joining the ranks of capital-s Storefront Somebodies and I wish them well on it. There's something happening among the Strange Trees that isn't happening elsewhere in Chicago and that's about as high of a compliment as I think there is. It's a little bit Edward Gorey, a little bit Raggedy Ann, a little bit meta and a lotta bit hilarious. And if the first half teeters ever so slightly on wearing out its welcome, you couldn't tell from the second act, a flume ride of romance, intrigue, humor and corpses that stops just short in order to punch you in the heartstrings with a painfully gorgeous refrain of "Oh, Elephant". Honestly, Strange Trees, that's really all it took before my belly laughs transformed to welling tears. You've done something magical. Keep doing it.

Also, if you look to your right, you might notice that The Mysterious Elephant and Other Things, Too is the inaugural show in my new Best of the Best section. This is where I put the things that anyone with a heart and a brain, or even just a couple of capillaries, should see. I ain't messing around with no Paul recommends or what to see this week, either. Best of the Best means just that; look to that section for the theatre Chicago should be proud to call its own.


This week's tentative agenda is me continuing to try to pack everything in before the Iowa Excursion: Wednesday is Wicked (because I should see the behemoth once before she leaves), Thursday is Gutenberg! The Musical! at The Royal George, Friday is (finally!) Theater Oobleck's The Strangerer, and Saturday is a double bill of BoHo's Jekyll & Hyde and Blindfaith's Woody Guthrie's American Song.

Also to come: a thought or two on the quickly rising Rogers Park Row (that would be Lifeline, Theo Ubique, BoHo, and the side project for those not familiar), just in time for my departure from the beloved neighborhood. But I've done enough typing for one day.



Rob Kozlowski said...

You need to check out Hedy Weiss's baffling review of The Mysterious Elephant. It's been a long time since I've been so positively flummoxed by anything ever.

Don Hall said...

I'll see you Friday at The Strangerer.

Bagby said...

Can't wait to hear what you think of Strangerer.

Sorry about Wicked. But good for you for trying.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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