Friday, October 31, 2008

A pause for inspiration

There's an Edward II/Cabaret Of Desire entry brewing, but in the meantime:

I was browsing YouTube while prepping my Iggy Pop costume, taking in some of the man himself, and I ran across this, which amazingly enough I had not seen before:

Now tell me, when is the last time you've seen a performer who was that swept up in their art on a theatrical stage? And more importantly, when's the last time you as an artist have been that swept up in your art?

I love that place. If I had to give up all pleasures but one for the rest of my life, I would keep dancing around with my jeans around my knees in front of thousands of people. Or repeating a nonsensical syllable to an audience member over and over and urgently over again until I am red in the face and doubled over, out of breath. Or writhing silently because I am an amoeba and I don't have limbs, dammit! Or hoisting a sweaty half-naked Israeli man in a trash barrel. That is to say, I would keep the ability to unhinge my soul and place it in the driver's seat.

Does this happen in traditional theatre? I see it (and feel it) there so rarely, yet I've found it readily available in clown, in DADA, in butoh, etc.... This is what brings people to the fringe. The fringe is where you don't have to worry about normal, thus where you can allow your reality to come out. Nothing normal is real, or perhaps nothing real is normal. Regardless, outsider art is where the soul is vindicated. Where the individuals have gone to maintain themselves. And as I prepare to ask how that can be brought to traditional theatre, I realize the answer is that it can't. We can bring glimpses over -- bits here and pieces there. But this is the sort of thing that you do in your bathroom when no one is watching and in front of an arena of tens of thousands of people and in both situations it looks and feels exactly the same. This is Art For Me. Art that is a piece of me. Art that is a piece of me that I do not release. This is not temporal, this is the unleashing of a hidden constancy. It's borderline insanity, the sort of work that you wonder how long you could sustain before completely draining yourself. Art that makes you throw things and remove clothing and disregard your body and sometimes just curl up in a little ball. This is true realism.

This is why I am an artist.


Monday, October 27, 2008

The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment/Quills

Y'all missed something special with Cupola Bobber. Leastways, I'm assuming you did, as their recent two-weekend run of The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment probably had a total capacity of 75-80 people. Keep in mind, that's the capacity of the entire run I'm talking about, not per show.

The brainchild of SAIC grads Stephen Fiehn and Tyler B. Myers, Cupola Bobber provides performance art cum clown show with the underlying tone of master's thesis. The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment is the lowest of low budget, created from worklights and cardboard and a touch of papier mache. It's repetitive and at times tedious or soporific. It doesn't give any answers and doesn't even ask all that many questions, for that matter. And it's utterly breathtaking. It's a perfect example of how to do much with little or nothing at all, and thus a very inspiring example as well. The secret of their success seems to come back around to investment. Which makes sense; every penny that was not (available to be) invested in this show financially was doubled or tripled mentally, emotionally, and physically. And it shows -- from Myers carrying Fiehn on his back for much of the first half of the show to an extended and ultimately painful dance sequence to Myers, silent for most of the show, suddenly get lost in the sheer wall of words and ideas available for expression and on into Fiehn's spoken-word starlit lullaby of sorts, these guys mean it, whatever you may discover it to be.

There are no punches pulled in this show, which strikes me even as I write it as a very unusual phrase for an evening so imbued with stillness. But somehow, even in monotone, Fiehn conveys the staggering momentum of everyday life; and some way, even while only seeing his hands grab at his pant legs for support, we understand Myers' struggle to keep Fiehn perched on his back, afloat and dreaming. Because the momentum and the struggle are really happening; we just happen to be witnessing. And whether it cost ten or ten million dollars, watching something really happen is about as good as it gets.

Cupola Bobber are preparing for a UK tour as I write this, but will be back at Links Hall in April to debut a new show. Do yourself a favor and take this time to get acquainted with them. You'll want to be in the know when they return.


On the other end of the low budget spectrum lies Quills, the inaugural production by The Shadowmen. Quills is the sort of low budget that parades around as if it weren't. And, knowing the prohibitive costs of performance space in the city, Quills, running at Trap Door, is working on a much, much larger budget than Cupola Bobber. And yet, by forging onward, making every decision a Real Theatre is supposed to make, The Shadowmen appear that much more ramshackle and that much less creative. The set is highlighted by a six or seven foot tall rib cage, which, as far as I could tell, serves no purpose other than eating up all of the time and resources allotted for the scenic design (or visual concept design, as the program deigns it, which confuses the hell out of me because visually the only thing approaching a concept that I saw was a big, useless rib cage). And so, we end up with a gigantic white version of the tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas -- ignored, bare, and shoved in a corner. Annnnd.... scenic design. Costumes? Bland and serviceable. Lights? Well, they came up and went down alright. Sound? I honestly don't remember if there was any. Not that any of these things need to be flash and dash to make for a good show, but don't kid yourself. There are so many fascinating and creative things you can do with a low budget, even more when you are required by a low budget. But please, own up to it, don't act like it isn't there.

But these are all minor complaints for this production. The big complaint is the elephant in the room that apparently not a single person working on this show is willing to acknowledge: the humor. The charm and appeal of the Marquis de Sade, the reason that his name has lived in infamy for centuries is not the dark and ribald material that he came up with, it was the glee and laughter that he injected into it. No one has successfully bashed in the line between funny and disturbing nearly as well as the Marquis. The key to telling his tale, and not just Quills, but any Sadean work, is going against every humane instinct and enjoying the fuck out of it. Errol McLendon's Sade goes from everyday molestor to pitiful victim at the drop of a hat and sulks and pleads and wails the rest of the way through. And it's not just Sade; almost everyone in this show seems to be drowning in a vat of the overly dramatic. The only hint of, dare I say, Sadean qualities comes from Kate Bailey's Muse, a silent character director Scott McKinsey has added to the show. And it's a shame, because the only glimmer of evil in this tale full of debauchery is stuck playing a character with about as much purpose as the gigantic set piece she spends most of her time in front of.


It's a relatively light week this, but certainly in the Halloween spirit. Thursday is Blair Thomas & Co.'s Cabaret Of Desire and Saturday is Annoyance's Splatter Theater. I know I've already been burnt by one over-the-top Halloween show this year, but Splatter has history on its side. And this time I'll be dressed for chance wayward stage blood instead of being shoehorned into it.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Young Ladies Of.../The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler

The (tenuous) topic of the day: Overplaying.

It hit me sitting in the almost empty Center On Halsted Wednesday night that maybe Taylor Mac isn't as widely known as I assumed. In fact, I don't know where it was that I first discovered Mac. I think it may have been from one of the NY bloggers, which, come to think of it, is a horrible judge of widespread popularity (that's a comment on bloggers in general, not just the NYers). Nevertheless, I was surprised that my excitement at About Face pulling in Taylor Mac for a full run was not remotely shared by the rest of Chicago.

Mac is a self-proclaimed pastiche artist, performing in deconstructed drag, all heavy makeup and sparkles and glitter and bras as thongs and so on and so forth. His latest show, The Young Ladies Of..., is a love/hate letter to his deceased Texas redneck father and, by association, to all those who are diametrically opposed to the sorts of artists who perform in deconstructed drag, all heavy makeup and sparkles and glitter and bras as thongs. Mac, it goes without saying, is the type that overplays.

The world Mac imbues onstage is gigantic in tactic -- the ukulele playing, the puppetry, the seemingly endless (and apparently ever-growing) unopened envelope setpieces, the Taylor Mac. Everything is much larger than it need be, except for the revelations and realizations. These peek out from Mac's overly-glittered eyes, sinking home that the division between us (whoever us may be) and them (ditto) is tragic because it is insurmountable because it is unknowable. And when he leads the audience in a chorus of "What's the use of wond'rin?" from Carousel, it's silly, because it's Taylor Mac in dirty white dress and Shirley Temple wig leading a sing along. And then it's beautiful, because we are all one and the same with Taylor Mac in our grasping for answers we'll never find. And then it's tragic, because... well, because we never will find the answers to gulf the gap between us and others, despite the fact that that is all we really want.

But then, just as all hope is lost, as the audience continues to question the use of wond'rin, now solo, the next revelation worms its way out from Mac's affable but slightly weary visage. The use of wond'rin, his sparkling eyes share, is that even if we can't meet halfway, both sides wandering unfamiliarly trying to find halfway is where the glory of humanity lies. The tragic and the comedic collide in the person who has thrown everything comfortable to the side in hopes that the uncomfortable is where the undiscovered bridge between us lies. And it is probable that we will never find it. But we find something, and that's closer than we were.

It's a tremendously delicate discovery. A tiny flash of light that means nothing to anyone not looking for it. That it lies couched in an explosion of charm and shine, the fantastic and the overplayed, makes it all the more precious. And it leaves Chicago on Monday. You should probably go.


I dig Dog & Pony's rag 'n bone aesthetic. I really, really dig it. But the approach lacks a certain sense of... perhaps subtlety is the right word? It's the same sort of plane as Taylor Mac, where the nuance becomes a little diamond in the rough. And it has rarely been more of a gem than in D&P's As Told By The Vivian Girls last spring. But The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler just can't quite find it, and not for lack of trying.

A large part of the problem is that the entire production is withering away in the cavernous Viaduct main stage. It's a great space -- if you need a cavern. Hedda Gabler doesn't and this production seems horribly out of place in the theatre. The set is drowing in unused space, the canned noise is distant, and the cast forces themselves to play wide and deep and still come up short.

Co-directors Devin de Mayo and Daniel Stermer do their best to push the cast to inflate to meet the space, but it comes at a cost. (A cost called overplaying -- you see how I [tenuously] tie this all together?) For every Matthew Sherbach, who steals most every scene he's in with loads of humor and a little pathos, and Jeannette Blackwell, whose Mammy is time and time again more earnest and human than any Mammy should comfortably be, there is a Laura Mahler or a Mildred Langford, making the Viaduct even more cavernous by incessantly chewing what little scenery there is.

But the biggest void is an inability to provide the audience their role. This is a script fully aware of its own fiction, yet, aside from a couple of key 'speak to the audience' moments (and even during a couple of them), the cast plays at their characters as if they were going about their lives unobserved when the crux of the play's conflict is that the only lives they can lead are the ones that we (and that's a very direct 'we', no abstraction here) continue to observe. It's too much motive, not enough meta.

And maybe that's the real connection with Taylor Mac; maybe overplaying is only the means to a similar end in this instance. The end being audience discovery: both the discovery of the nature of the audience by the performers and the audience's discovery of their own implicitness in the piece.

What's the use of wond'rin? It's that even in the act of wond'rin, we are changing the world directly in front of our eyes. Taylor Mac let us do so. Dog & Pony told us we were and tried to move forward anyway.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Renew and Refresh

He's back! Now that Drac has closed, I appear to have a new lease on life and blog. It turns out that planning for/working on three projects plus however many little tangents is my limit. Once that fourth one hits, it's timeout for Paul. But I'm back to three and am rearing and ready to go. (It also didn't hurt to find out that people actually read this thing and notice when I slack... odd, that vanity thing.) So I'm gearing up this week for About Face's The Young Ladies Of... on Wednesday, Dog and Pony's The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler on Thursday, Cupola Bobber's The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment on Friday, and a double bill of Chicago Shakes' Edward II and The Shadowmen's Quills on Saturday. Yup, the ol' Rekk is back.

In the meantime, This American Wife didn't hold the title of Worst Show I've Seen This Year for long -- New Millennium's The Texas Chainsaw Musical swept in last Friday and stole that sacred spot handily. The two shows are about on par (lack of) quality-wise, but New Millennium wins simply by managing to actually have a premise chock full of humor and then proceeding to leave 98% of that humor wasting away in the What Coulda Been bin. It also doesn't help that I'm still hoping that I can get the stage blood out of my khaki coat and one of my favorite pairs of jeans because, for some god-only-knows reason, this motherfucker is selling out and I got stuck in the 'Blood Seats'. Just a thought: when every single seat in the house is full before a single Blood Seat is occupied, maybe you've got a one-trick pony on your hands that needs to be cut. Obviously the audience isn't into it. Or at least sell that shit separately so the drunken frat boy in front of me can get his kicks without me having to go through laundry woes. After paying fifteen bucks. For a load of shit. That even BYOB couldn't overcome.



Monday, October 13, 2008

Jeebus Christ!

Been a while, eh? Anyone remember when I pulled the disappearing act last year around this time, too? Yeah, so do I.

Apologies to all, especially to the Escanaba In Love/R.U.R. entry still lingering half-finished on my desktop; and to The Picture Of Dorian Gray, which gave me lots of interesting thoughts on Wilde the playwright vs. Wilde the novelist; and to Dog In A Manger, which is a brilliant fucking adaptation, even if only about half the cast can get close to pulling it off; and to Nicole LeGette, who provided my official formal introduction to Butoh, both in performance and workshop form (I'm still a little sore and I love it); and to The Threepenny Opera, which would have been on my Best of the Best if I had gone before the closing performance; and to the Steppenwolf Garage, to which I had never been and which is the absolutely, god-damned, hands-down, perfect space for my take on SubUrbia, the opening play of The Nine, and which I am now bound and determined to get in there, no matter the amount of wining and dining, proposal writing, and gussying myself up as professional yet edgy (or edgy yet professional) I have to do. So take note, any Steppen-ssociates who may be reading...

So I apologize, but I may continue to be sparse for a while. You see, it's a really exciting time -- I hit what Tony might refer to as my tide. Dracula is closing next weekend (so come see it); DADA is just gearing up and I've been stretching my poor anarchy brain cells, which had begun to atrophy, in order to get some DADA writing done; we'll be starting to have informal get-togethers for the Right Brain Project's production of Fernando Arrabal's ...And They Put Handcuffs On The Flowers this weekend, because even though it goes up in February, we'll need to be that comfortable with each other -- and if you don't know what I'm talking about, please, please hunt down some Arrabal. Hell, please, please do it anyway.; I'm crunching hard on The Nine, especially on Number Five, an original piece by yours truly entitled BlueGrass; I've been doing a lot of completely unstructured, completely unpublic physical movement work that I really have no idea what it is, but I love it and would like to find a way to make it a little less unpublic (butoh only amplified this); and while I'm seeing less shows than I was, the ones I am seeing are tremendously exciting -- it seems to be a watershed time for rock-and-roll, let's fucking do this, kick you in the teeth theatre: Threepenny rocked my beggar's socks off; Red Tape's Dog In A Manger script is a-freaking-mazing, I'm not even kidding; I've already got my tix for Kafka on the Shore and Edward II, which both look from these eyes to be playin' exactly how they wanna play and fuck the rest of y'all; the MCA's got me hooked up with Cie Heddy Maalem and GATZ on the way; and there's all this other stuff that I hope to get to and I hope is half as cool as it looks: Cabaret of Desire, The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, The Young Ladies Of..., The Brothers Karamazov, Radio Macbeth; and then there's the long-term exciting stuff: lots more MCA, Jimmy McDermott does The Maids, the sweet-christ-on-a-bike O'Neill Festival line-up; Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Good god damn. It's an exciting time to be a theatre artist in Chicago. So you'll pardon me if I take some to enjoy and add to that myself while stopping in here occasionally. I'll be back. I always am.

And I'll return to link everybody later. I gots Our Town tix that I gotta go enjoy.