Parabasis Theater

at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

The important-looking gentleman in the tie who introduced Parabasis Theater’s debut production echoed my sentiments exactly when he joked, “Oh no, not another small, struggling Chicago theater company!” Perhaps what sets this one apart is its modesty. Parabasis has selected two difficult one-acts and given them quiet, simple stagings–these artists seem more interested in doing their work than in making a splash.

In the first piece, Lanford Wilson’s monologue A Poster of the Cosmos, a young man sits behind a table addressing a pair of cops who are investigating the death of his lover, Johnny. Tom (Scott Anderson) is filled with contradictory emotions: fear, rage, indignation, guilt, pride. Having just left Johnny’s hospital bed, where he held his lover until he died, Tom finds himself up against uncaring officers who label him “that kind of guy.” Tom describes in lovingly prosaic terms his three-year relationship with Johnny, a relationship he furiously defends against the cops’ imagined sneers.

Anderson’s performance of Cosmos is simply first-rate. He barks out his first line just as the stage lights come up, boldly claiming the stage. The white lights pin him behind the table, his eyes darting nervously between the two imagined police officers, a tape recorder whirring relentlessly beside him. In an instant Anderson creates an environment and loads it with tension.

But in another instant he abruptly shifts gears, reining everything back as if hoping none of us caught his momentary outburst. He sits calmly, complacently, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. This opening is not only delightfully comic but establishes the extremes of Tom’s character, in effect creating the range within which Anderson plays for the rest of the evening.

And he proceeds to explore that territory with great insight. His Tom is skittish and unsettled, talking with a nasal Brooklyn accent in an endless nervous stream. These choices communicate the enormous stress Tom’s under and provide the vocal rhythm essential to the success of this one-act. Anderson nearly sings most of the text, interrupted only by massive pregnant silences as he lights one cigarette after another. By underscoring the piece’s musicality, Anderson is able to sustain a carefully articulated arc from beginning to end.

Peter Davis’s direction is admirably economical. He seats Anderson in one spot throughout the piece, in a chair with both feet on the floor and arms resting on the table before him. Realizing that his actor will be under incredible scrutiny–both from the imaginary police and from the audience in Sheffield’s tiny space–Davis eliminates all unnecessary movement, so that the flip of a Zippo top or the sudden narrowing of eyes carries enormous weight.

There is not a moment of excess or indulgence in Anderson’s performance. While most young actors would try to wrench their way through Tom’s pain, showing us just how deeply they can feel the sting of his wounds, Anderson understands that the play does not begin and end with Tom’s emotional state. There are larger issues–not only the literal images from Tom and Johnny’s life but metaphoric images of helplessness and self-respect. Certainly Anderson provides an emotionally full portrayal, but he uses those emotions to illuminate the play’s themes.

Tongues, a much more challenging piece to perform, seems a bit shaky by comparison. Created by Joseph Chaiken and Sam Shepard over the course of a few weeks in 1978, Tongues is, in Shepard’s words, “a piece to do with the voice. . . . Voices from the dead and living. Hypnotized voices. Sober voices. Working voices. Voices in anguish, etc.” Originally performed by Chaiken and accompanied by Shepard on various percussion instruments, Tongues is as much about the coming together of these two great theater artists as it is about the voices in the piece.

Of course, as performers Chaiken and Shepard are a tough act to follow: their highly poetic text demands a near virtuoso performance to bring all the disparate elements together. Marchel Shipman is clear and compassionate, but she doesn’t find a way to give unity to the text. In essence she works too hard. This monologue should evolve effortlessly–a Worker’s Voice leads to a New Mother’s Voice, which segues into an unidentified voice trying desperately to identify itself. Under Anderson’s direction, Shipman tries to create a character for each voice instead of simply allowing these voices to come out of herself. As a result the piece never gains momentum, stopping and starting several times, and we focus more on the quality of Shipman’s characterizations than on the voice itself. This approach also forces Shipman to adopt new postures, new accents, new gestures for each character, choices that add a lot of extra “actorly” material and cloud the purity of the script.

The text’s rhythms are explored in a disappointingly cursory way. With its repetitive invocations and percussive accompaniment (performed by Fraser Cole), Tongues is centrally concerned with cadence and meter, with reaching the psyche through a lyric rather than dramatic sensibility. The actor’s voice needs to be as much an instrument as the drums and bells that accompany it. But this production remains entrenched in the dramatic–the focus is on creating realistic psychologies. While this approach adds a degree of comprehensibility, it also drains certain mysterious passages of their power. The ebb and flow of the language, its poetic and musical qualities, are what give Tongues much of its magic, and here they receive short shrift.