Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fake Lake

Speaking of shitty seating, the metal bleachers at the Welles Park Swimming Pool take the cake. When The Neo-Futurists tell audiences to 'dress comfortably', what they mean is 'wear something with an extremely padded ass'. You've been warned.

Fake Lake falls into that awkward genre of theatrical writing -- beyond 'based on true events', beyond even 'based on true autobiographical events', this is that sort of 'based on true autobiographical events that will be relayed to you in first person by the playwright who will in one and the same time relay and reflect these events as well as the fact that she is relaying and reflecting them." Or, as director Halena Kays calls it in the Director's Notes: "off-loop, storefront, self-referential, site-specific, spectacle-based, narrative, Neo-Futurist, sciencetastic, meta-theatrical, post-modern, ensemble-based, collaborative, physical theater". Call it Memoir Theatre.

The problem, or rather very common potential problem, with anything this self-referential and meta-narrative (especially when the playwright is also playing herself/narrator), is that the audience never quite grasps the full picture nearly as well as the artist. Made aware very early that Neo-Futurist Sharon Greene lived these events as she tells them, we can't help but be a few steps behind her, aware of the slightly mocking tone she takes, but without her knowledge of the people and events to make the satire truly funny. And by the time the show weaves into ecologically meaningful doc theatre, it's a hard turn for those of us still trying to figure out a way to wrap ourselves around the personal story.

But there are parts that work marvelously, and they seem to come at the times that Greene either relives the story as much for her sake as ours (a he [should've] said/she [should've] said evening by LED candlelight) or allows it to tell itself (after acknowledging the length of time it takes the Welles Park fluorescent lights to come back on, the cast plays around in the pool for a few minutes, transforming a tedious wait into a breathtaking sunrise). It's moments like these that remind us that moments like these are universal, not something that happened to Sharon Greene that we should know about.


Friday, August 29, 2008

As political as I get

Anyone who stops by here regularly probably knows by now that I don't talk politics here. This is because as apolitical as I am, I only rarely talk politics anywhere.

But, hey, can we take a quick step back to just acknowledge that no matter what happens in November, a major milestone will be occur? Next year, either a black man or a woman will have a direct and immediate hand in the running of our country.

And it only took 233 years to get there.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Dancing at Lughnasa/People's History of the U.S.

Today's connection is location. I had two more firsts this weekend -- my first Oak Park Festival Theatre experience and my first Quest Theatre experience, and both of them were affected heavily by location.

I'm sure Dancing at Lughnasa was a capable production, perhaps not more but certainly not less, and if nothing else, it seemed like Brian Simmons was doing some top-notch work as Michael. I'm speaking in uncertainties because I'm not entirely certain. Unfamiliar with Oak Park Festival's set-up, my less than punctual self showed up at about 7:58 with no blanket or chair in hand. So I sat on the grass immediately behind a larger couple in camping chairs. Granted, that was bound to happen anyway as the entire front row was made of couples, many of them larger, all of them in camping chairs.

I know it's already been said by a million critics for this production, but, really? Lughnasa in that set-up? Any theatre in the park type setting, much less one without any formal seating arrangment, is going to need a sense of broadness to get anything past the first larger couple. Dancing at Lughnasa: not so high on the broad scale. I could see about 2/3rds of the stage from a terrible angle (and among those of us sitting on the ground, I can only imagine that mine was one of the better ones) and heard, y'know, most of it. So it seemed like an all right show. That's about as sure as I can be.

As Ed mentioned in the comments for my Torch Song post, Quest isn't exactly a luxurious outing either, but I do think it added to the atmosphere and charm of the evening. I have the other sort of seating difficulty -- I'm not larger, I'm longer, so the knees usually end up jammed someplace less than ideal. Quest was no exception, but sitting there on cramped hard plastic chairs in a church basement and holding a brown paper bag full of one dollar popcorn put me in the exact right place for The People's History of the United States, with its Jim Henson combination of childlike earnestness and oddball charm that only truly works if it seems low budget, regardless of the reality of the situation.

The whole evening was a blast, which is quite an accomplishment considering how randomly it bounced around stylistically. Most memorable were the intense (and considering the number of youngsters in the crowd, probably nightmare-inducing) Salem witch trials, including Ian Knox's fierce evocation of Jonathan Edwards; the Pete Seeger does Sesame Street rave-up of "All Mixed Up"; the Depression-era "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" -- which most directly aped the Henson brand of absurd; an marvelous acoustic rendition of Tommy Cash's "Six White Horses" by Ben Powell, who might be the honest man's answer to Seth Rogen (which I absolutely mean as a compliment); and the best piece of the evening, the every which way but didactic "Fifty Million Commies", which starts with Joe McCarthy as a ventriloquist's dummy and ends with a tap dancing chorus girl in a gigantic papier mache Mao Tse-Tung mask.

The show runs out of steam a bit at the end, capsuling the entire 90s into an abstracted Monica Lewinsky joke and, of course, ending the 00's after a year and nine months. But history's a lot harder when you still remember it, and when the cast comes together to end with The Polyphonic Spree's "Light and Day" and a charmingly low-budget amount of audience covering confetti, the People's Company finishes the People's History with and for, not to, the People.

And then we mulled around a church basement with the cast, who felt no need to rush backstage to get out of costume. It was kind of beautiful.


This week for Paul: The Neo-Futurists' Fake Lake on Friday, Eclipse's Plaza Suite on Saturday, and Open Eye's Trust on Sunday. And a lot of relaxation on Labor Day.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Torch Song Trilogy

For a good lesson on the interplay between static and dynamic staging, head on down to the Greenhouse and compare Azusa's Onto Infinity with the first act of Hubris' Torch Song Trilogy. One of Onto Infinity's biggest missteps (and there are some pretty big ones) is its lethargy. Physically, the show moves at a snail's pace if at all. The most active pieces of the productions are the scene changes, which employ the traditional college theatre stealth tactics: lights mostly down, actors shuffling furniture around with eyes on the floor two feet in front of them, somber and modestly-paced movement to ensure that the audience realizes that they've turned off the Acting switch and turned on the Scene Change switch, adjusting legs of furniture after it's been set down to ensure they are properly on the spike marks that have been well-hidden from the audience. And then the lights come up and the acting switches come on, and the Upstairs Studio is aglow with.... sitting. And some talking. If things are getting frisky, one character may stand up and walk to the person they are talking to, but don't worry, they'll be back to their chair before long. And cue scene change! And all of it undermines Joseph E. Gluekert’s abstracted Alice in Numbersland forced perspection set, an interesting foundation with nothing built upon it.

While downstairs, for a little over the first hour of the show, Hubris director Andrew Hobgood has his cast running all over New York City and State using only an oversized central bed, despite the presence of the rest of John Whittington's finely detailed set. The Cali King is, among other things, multiple beds at once, a dinner table and even the interior of a barn, is rarely unoccupied and serves the play terrificly. It's one of many steps the confident Hobgood takes in sharing Harvey Fierstein's tale of Arnold and those near to him. The director knows his space and knows what he can do with it and what he doesn't have to worry about doing. He knows he can light everyone but Arnold and still have him maintain focus. He knows he can have half of his cast speak off stage right to the other half who are standing immediately stage left. And he knows he doesn't need burdensome scene changes when he can stick with distinct location changes.

The second act proceeds much closer to the vein of realism, and is fully carried to the point of engaging and beyond by Ryan Jarosch's Arnold, whose eyes seem to be constantly scouring the room for a solution that he knows isn't there. And, even without Mary Hollis Inboden's lovely light touch as Laurel, the second act seems at least twenty minutes shorter than it is. But there was nothing quite like the first act realization that these characters were going everywhere by staying in one place while elsewhere (and multiple elsewheres, not just upstairs) people are moving all over and not budging an inch.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Thanks for all the great feedback on The Nine; the response has been fantastic. Please, please, if you haven't been in touch, do so. And whether you have or not, spread the word -- get your friends and colleagues in touch with me as well. The most important factor in putting this up will be the Chicago artistic community, not the Chicago artistic community's money. If enough people are eager and striving for this, even $50,000 will seem like a massive budget.

So I'm aware that as this grows, I will soon be needing to start a website, most likely with accompanying blog, solely for The Nine. Which means much of the theoretical stuff will be taking place over there. And in figuring out what will remain on this one, it seems to me that there's a lot of conversation available that I haven't been mining from all the shows I am continually seeing. Basically, I'm saying that this blog may begin steering more Chicago production-based. I'm going to try to ride that line where I don't just become another self-glorified critic, but instead force myself to sit down and reflect on how the shows that I am seeing springboard into the greater artistic ideas at hand. We'll see what happens.

For me this week (and the lucky guinea pigs, it would appear): on Thursday, Hubris Productions' Torch Song Trilogy; on Friday, Oak Park Festival's Dancing at Lughnasa; and hopefully on Saturday, Quest's The People's History of the United States (I'm a moron and didn't make reservations until this past weekend, so I'm on the wait list. Fingers crossed, because I was quite looking forward to it...)


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Metaluna/Steps Forward

Don Hall said something to me about Metaluna after the show on Saturday that took a few days to sink in properly: (apologies Don, I'm paraphrasing) "It's like a send-up of everything WNEP does." As I reflect on Metaluna and the last Soiree DADA and try to get myself in the mindset of the Christmas Soiree, that begins to make sense. Where does DADA end and absurdism begin? Throughout Metaluna, despite having a blast or maybe because I was having a blast, I couldn't help but wonder where it was all leading. Not that the endgame was important so much as the fact that the show seemed to be leading somewhere, anywhere, with a whole lot of pit stops on the way. Fun pit stops. Whimsical pit stops. Relatively inconsequential pit stops.

There's a temptation here to lead this into yet another What Is DADA discussion. To say, "It was fun, but perhaps it wasn't DADA." I'm trying to steer clear from that, half because it's a fruitless discussion, and half because I'm aware of just how beside the point that statement is. It was fun. That's really all I need to say from that standpoint; after all, I don't demand that everything (or even much) that I enjoy be DADA, why force Metaluna into that heading?

The reason that this still seems somewhat pertinent, though, is the preparation for the next Soiree DADA. Because tides seem to be changing -- WNEP has crafted (is crafting) the art of the DADA into quite a fashionable little Chicago underground subsect. Which:

a) is awesome.
b) sucks.

DADA has become acceptable enough for the DCA, a division of the City government, to be eager for it to return -- which seems to demand action. My personal brand of DADA is far from political: it certainly works entirely separate from any notion of Government. But it is very much anti-government (i.e. refuses to be governed). DADA is what shouldn't be. DADA is shift. DADA is not necessarily offense, but can overstep that line at the jump of a hat. DADA is that tickly feeling sucking at my entrails when you do things you shouldn't because that alone means you should. DADA is not audience interaction. DADA is audience interaction. DADA is audience revulsion and audience immersion and audience division and audience revolution and audience sublification and interspartification and bioemulsion and deoxyspasmordiosis. DADA will eat your children and spit out the bones and then tell their future based on how they lie. DADA will shit on your childhood pet. DADA will love you forever. DADA is what I want it to be and what I want it to be is whatever you don't.

So look, I made this into a what is DADA rant anyway.... To which I have to say:

a)Ooops; or
b)Fuck you anyway.

...depending on the hour and the tidal/lunar pull. I'm just getting in tune. Right in tune.


Those weren't even the Steps Forward I had intended to write about -- that was just unexpected riffing. The Steps Forward are the very basic reveal of that big old project I had mentioned a while back. You see, I have been building the foundation for a nine play cycle to begin in May of 2010 and last 2 1/2 years (1 show per quarter and the finale six months after). These are mostly old scripts, with a couple -- 2 1/2 -- of my own mixed in. But it is all new work: if the words aren't new, the conceptualizations or adaptations most certainly are. There are two strong ideas at work behind the piece, and in today's tradition of providing two options, they are:

a) the idea of Theatre as Art, not Business; and
b) the questioning and reanswering of what makes theatre theatre: what we can and cannot include and disclude in the form and what both audiences and artists will and will not accept as a (part of) theatrical production

The former seems simple, and it is, but perhaps not readily so. You see, this is not a project aligned with any theatre company, and I even hesitate to refer to it as self-produced. It's self-induced. This is one large scale, long-term event consisting of nine smaller, shorter-term, stand-alone events. This is not self-sustaining, this is neither for profit or not for profit, this is nine shows and done, never to be done again. Simply a creation of temporary reality. This will be funded by whatever means possible (believe me, one mean possible will involve you hearing from me in the future), with the goal, in an ideal world, of arriving back at zero, as if nothing ever happened. Most importantly, this will not be a pay-per-view event(s): the ticket policy is most decidedly Pay What You Want (not Pay What You Can) for all seats for all shows.

The latter is where things get really fun. This is where I will delve much further in future discussions (or even more immediately if you want to know more -- feel free to contact me at any time with further inquiries about anything), but let's start by saying the process is very much part and parcel with the title of the overarching work:

It's one rendition I've found, I'm sure there will be multiple incarnations of the greek cross, primarily of this particular hue. That's the official title, though you'll hear me refer to it just as frequently as The Nine. Why the greek cross? A number of reasons -- the one I want to start with is that each of the shows aligns with a section of the cross. Divide the cross into eight portions (the four arms, and the center cube quartered on the diagonals), with the ninth spot as the center point. The cycle of shows will begin on the uppermost arm, cycle the arms clockwise, spiral into the uppermost center section, cycle the inner cube clockwise, and finish at the center. Each pairing (up, down, left and right) of the cross is representative of a different aspect of the theatrical form which the two shows on that branch will bring into focus. Naturally, as we spiral inward, the shows will become more and more challenging of the assumptions about how they relate to theatre. Very basically, four aspects approached will be (starting from the top and working clockwise) setting, sound, character, and plot, with the ninth piece a full-bore attack on what the conventions of theatre artistry must and may be. I'm loathe to relay exactly what all nine shows will be (although they are all nine in the far advanced stages of planning already), but I will go so far as to share that One is a restaging of Eric Bogosian's SubUrbia and Two is a selection of radio-themed one acts: Samuel Beckett's Words and Music, my own Peculiar Way, and Jean Cocteau's The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party. I can also say that The Nine will run the gamut from Shakespeare to Jarry to yours truly and many points in between.

SubUrbia will open May 21st, 2010. The goal is to spend the rest of this year and all of next finishing my outlining and pre-planning process and raising funds. My intended budget for the project is $50,000. I know that $50,000 for nine full-sized productions in Chicago is quite a low goal, but I am sticking to my guns on Theatre as Art and forcing myself to be creative. I also feel that I can stick with such a low budget because I will not solely be asking for funds -- my marketing and development campaign, which I will be kicking off in the next month or so, will also be formulated to gather support in other ways: talent, time, space, creativity, as well as funding.

Consider this the official first announcement. I will be setting up separate accounts and the like for The Nine immediately, but for the next week or two, I encourage everyone reading this to contact me at p.rekk(at)hotmail(dot)com -- hopefully, you will have questions and be looking for more specified information (which I might gladly provide). Even more hopefully, you will be offering your support: even if it is nothing solidified at this time, simply a note saying, "Hey Paul, I'm interested, feel free to tap me as a resource as the project gains legs." is helpful. Anything solidified would be drop dead amazing -- money (all funds will go to the shows, any profits from a show will go back into the next shows, any profits left from the final show will be given to a theatrically aligned charity to be chosen soon), time (while I don't have spaces confirmed, I do have timelines that will be met come hell or high water, so I can give you dates as far ahead as June of 2012, when the final show opens), space (this will be perhaps the biggest help -- if you have or are associated with a rehearsal or performance space that you are willing to let me use for a discounted rate or even free, let's compare calendars), or even creativity (I will be looking for good minds to bounce things off of as this thing gets going) are more than welcome.

The big question is, naturally, why. And there is no mission statement, no outline of goals, no wishy-washy funder-baiting crap that I will be providing. This is art. This is art that does not exist in Chicago, very likely not elsewhere either. This is art that whether it changes the world or not, will exist for a very short time -- 2 1/2 years to be exact -- and will then disappear, except in the minds of those who took part, where it will live forever and then beyond that. This is art that, like all art, must exist, simply because the alternative is it not existing. Be a part of that.

Again, this is a call to everyone reading this. Not just the bloggers, not just the theatre people, not just the artists, and finally, not just the vocal ones. Everyone, whether we've met or not, whether I know you or you know me or not. We will, and this is how.



Monday, August 11, 2008

The Return of Tony Clifton and his Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra

Alright, I know that Co-Ed Prison Sluts is back and that's a pretty big deal, even though I wasn't around for the first one, but if you're going to see a late-night show in Chicago this week, it's gotta be Tony Clifton down at the Chopin. You're not going to find a dirtier, raunchier, more intensely swingin' time in Chicago and you certainly aren't going to find one more real. Tony Clifton lives in some strange no man's land between performance art and found art. His show should by no means be entertaining to any person with the slightest shred of humanity. Decent folks awake with a start from Tony Clifton dreams. But normal folks -- normal folks (whoever the fuck they are) in a little way want to be Tony Clifton and in another little way want to see Tony Clifton fail and in a third little way are secretly overjoyed when Tony Clifton doesn't fail because Tony Clifton simply can't -- decent folks, fire marshals, and Death be damned. (D'ya hear that Andy Kaufman?)

Tony Clifton: Because you want to hate yourself in the morning.


This week for me? Friday is Chicago dell'Arte's Murder, Murder, Murder! followed by another bout with Tony Clifton (this time with a reserved front row table), Saturday is Azusa's Onto Infinity, and Sunday is Dream Theatre's Medea.


Friday, August 1, 2008

The Birthday Party

Well, there's still a bunch of things I wanna talk about: soundtrack design and the use of contemporary music references thanks to Victory Gardens' long closed Relatively Close, some thoughts on Oracle's recently closed Termen Vox Machina, the groundwork for a massive theatrical undertaking I am in the process of beginning, some elaboration on ideas mined from Dave Hickey's Air Guitar brought to my attention by one Ms. Kerry Reid, other inanities and general claptrap.

Instead, I'm going to talk about Signal's production of The Birthday Party. I'm owning up to that bias: it jumps to the front of the line because these guys and gals have their lovely claws in me and I have many, many reasons for wanting many, many people to go see this show. My typically closing weekend (or post-closing weekend) write up just won't cut it. So this is the part of the blog where I try to mix business and pleasure. Let's see if I can safely navigate that little minefield we affectionately call "conflict of interest".

To be perfectly honest, of the Big Five (as defined by Martin Esslin) of the Theatre of the Absurd, Pinter is possibly my least favorite, depending on which Genet we're talking about. Granted, that's praising with feint damnation -- I'll still take him over Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller any day, but I digress. During a conversation with Aaron Snook, director of The Birthday Party, on opening night (this is the problem with blogging, I usually just end up rewriting things I've said to other people during the week), I mentioned that of the Absurdists, Pinter is the one that I tend to forget is absurd. He reads so naturalistic that the only thing that seems to instantly stand out on the page is the infamous Pinter pauses -- which, far too often ridiculously overblown, seem to actually serve to encompass the natural world in the midst of everything else going on in Pinter's work when they are effectively staged.

Snook, unlike me, gets Pinter to the core. I know this not because Signal's production is grade A (it is), but because when I am watching this production, and then again postshow, I get Pinter, too. That this is successful has nothing to do with Snook's answers and decisions being right -- that's beside the point. It has everything to do with the fact that he has answers and decisions that are right to him. In staging them as he sees them rather than as he wants others to see them, he not only opens the door to allow the audience into his own vision, he opens it to allow them into any vision they may encounter for themselves. I've heard a lot of different theories about what exactly The Birthday Party is about since this show opened -- a lot, a lot of disparate interpretations. Me? I personally don't see a lot of purpose for background in this piece. I don't need to know who McCann and Goldberg are or work for exactly or what Stanley may have done in his past. I do know who they are now and what is happening to/because of them now, and that to me is what this play (and much of Pinter) is about: the now. Leaving questions unanswered as a playwright can force an audience to do one of two things: answer the questions themselves or stop asking and allow what is happening to happen partially undefined. Each has its place, and to me, Pinter falls in the second category.

Not that it matters, because I'm no more correct than those answering every question themselves. We're all making the show work best within our own frame of reference. It's about the best thing a director can hope for and, in an ideal world, the exactly what an audience would ask from him.

But there's a second part to that: allowing for the audience to interpret only works when the director has a firm grasp on his own interpretation. And I've never been extremely clear on how that success is verifiable outside of a "this show works/this show doesn't" type of snap judgment. But after my third time with this production (it'll probably be four before I actually finish writing this), I started to notice little details, lines in particular, that seemed to transcend a little. Moments in which the full extent of Pinter's ability, which I was heretofore not fully linked in with, became evident. Simple lines, such as "You find a resemblance?", which despite being unassuming, could not be replaced by a better, more fitting grouping of words. And it's a hopelessly pretentious, hoity-toity idea on my part, but I can help but think that this is the byproduct of a level of understanding and complicity among the cast that emanates from the, for lack of a better word, direction in which the, ahem, director has chosen to point.

Another quality, perhaps the strongest, is simply truth in advertising. This, with the possible exception of The Weir, has the most lateral sense of an ensemble (by which I mean technical as well as performance ensemble) that I've seen from Signal, who are no lightweights when it comes to ensemble work -- the word's not in their name for nothin'. This realization actually came to me when I found out the show hadn't been Jeff recommended. It almost makes sense that it wasn't: you don't leave The Birthday Party with thoughts of how great the performances or the set or the costumes or any other aspect were, not because they weren't great, but because none of them took focus. There was no element outshining any other, because nothing was in the spotlight. Which is simply another way of saying everything was in the spotlight. When you leave a well-pieced ensemble work, you remember the effect of the whole, not the individual aspects. And therein is what I know I can always expect from Signal.


So, it's been a while, and I never gave proper notice of last week's schedule. For the sake of inclusiveness, it was a Factory double feature of Ren Faire! A Fistful of Ducats and Shameless Shamuses on Friday night. That was it.

As to next week, it's looking like Comic Relief's The Return of Tony Clifton and his Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra on Friday (I'm going based solely on Chris Jones'... what would you call this? disclaimer? apology? walk of shame?), and both Walking With Dinosaurs (fuck yeah!) and WNEP's Metaluna and the Amazing Science of the Mind Revue (for real this time) on Saturday. I'm also working box for The Birthday Party a couple of nights, so come on out and get a little Paul Rekk with your show! Remember, every night's an industry night...