at Blind Parrot Theater

In his first of many tiresome monologues, carnival huckster Cyrus Grifter introduces his cast of freaks, including the Human Animal, Siamese Twin Pinheads, Rooster Man, the Bearded Lady, and others. These freaks, Grifter promises, will give us a perspective on our pain. This is the audience’s first clue that this medicine show is about to teach us something, if only we can suffer through the “entertainment” portion. The question now arises: which will be the least sufferable, the medicine or the sugar coating?

Although the play is set in Kalamazoo in 1947, the authors’ message–that we’re all suckers, pawns of the military/industrial complex–is exhumed from the 60s. As our story unfolds, we discover that the carnival is in crisis. Grifter is informed by his mysterious sponsor that the carnival must “change with the times.” Their usual backer–the Daisy Corporation and its product, mother’s milk–is out. The new backer, the Phoenix Corporation, is some sort of finance institution. And with this new backer comes Grifter’s replacement, Ramsen. Ramsen is a starry-eyed visionary, contrasting with Grifter, the hard-sell cynic. Ramsen embodies positivism, credit, renewal, prosperity, public relations, advertising, the better mousetrap. But Ramsen, like Reagan I suppose, gives every appearance of buying her own line of bullshit.

The obvious implication of the changes at the carnival is that postwar America is entering a new era. And in order to exercise and exploit America’s resurgent industrial strength, new markets (particularly the leisure and luxury market) must be carved out; Americans must be persuaded to return to their meaningless jobs with renewed hope. Grifter sees this line for what it is–short con or long con, it’s always a con–but winds up buying into it anyway.

But wait–that’s not all! You also get the antiwar theme, the frightening birth of the video culture, and a bonus episode suggesting the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, you get far more political baby food than you can stomach in one sitting. And if that’s not enough, mother’s milk is available at the concession stand, for two bucks, served in plastic baby bottles. Actually, I found the intermission the most illuminating portion of the evening, watching River North yuppies–too young and too trendy to have been slapped out of their naivete by the disillusionment of the 60s–sucking on baby bottles and affecting a disdain for the culture they so eloquently represent.

But back to the show, which is as artistically derivative as it is politically reductive. The cast of characters is not a little reminiscent of the cult film Freaks, but since these aren’t real freaks of nature, as in the film, they’re far less intriguing. Then there’s the scene where the family of a dead soldier is granted three wishes; their second brings him back to life, and the third, of course, puts him back in the grave–just like W.W. Jacobs’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” Even the poster and program illustration is a crude ripoff of English artist Ralph Steadman. And the mother’s milk–wouldn’t you know?–is tapped from a breast spigot, as in A Clockwork Orange. You’d have to be either very young or culturally illiterate not to have seen and heard all of this before.

Only rarely does Alagazam stray from the fine line it walks between cliche and plagiarism into anything approximating originality. The best scene, no, the only worthwhile scene in the show, is when Jake, the soldier, comes back from the dead. At this point, Jake is missing an arm and a leg and is liberally slathered in blood and gore. Jake takes this opportunity to recite an excited, childlike narrative (supported by well-amplified sound effects) about how he got blown away. Greg Sporleder (as Jake) gives such a wonderfully comic performance here, and his makeup is so horrific, that I found myself genuinely caught between laughing and gagging. This is the sort of tension that Alagazam aspires to, yet only once achieves.

Most of the other performances do little more than test your patience. Lee Arenberg (as Grifter) is tedious and one-dimensional–a problem he tries to cover by speaking quickly though not articulately. Hope Davis (as Ramsen) makes you reassess your respect for Arenberg. The cast of freaks is generally unimpressive, proving once and for all that there are no small parts, only large costumes. Significant exceptions include Shira Piven (as the Pregnant Woman), who somehow, some way, amid all this retread avant-garde, company-conceived garbage, manages to internalize her character. And Bill Cusack and D.V. DeVincentis (the Siamese Twin Pinheads) are delightful, although all they really do is make funny faces and talk like gerbils.

John Cusack’s direction is about what you’d expect from this kind of production. He uses action, music (there’s a live three-piece band), sound effects, and a crowded, restless stage picture in a losing battle to keep the audience’s attention. The production style is self-consciously theatrical and confrontational. The actors deliver their dialogue facing the audience, even when speaking to other characters, and only the back rows of the audience are safe from those hideous moments of contact when an actor looks you in the eyes, talks to you, and even, touches you, all without managing an iota of honest, open communication. Front-row patrons are advised to wear somber, washable clothes in defense against spewn milk and flying stage blood.

A few words to the authors, Tim Robbins and Adam Simon: grow up. This is not, as the Human Animal says, “a political statement and a bona fide work of art.” This is a fungus that’s festered in the back of the refrigerator for 20 years.

Artistically Alagazam is depressing, largely because it’s a new play. And like most new plays, there’s nothing new about it. As a play of revolt, it’s artistically inferior to everything it’s revolting against. Alagazam seems typical of what we call experimental theater, which isn’t really experimental since it never examines, or even seems aware of, its results. So each new experiment only produces variations of earlier, failed experiments. Originality isn’t a thing that you try to reach directly. It’s something you stumble across, or improvise in the pursuit of some other and hopefully more worthy goal. Until people in the theater figure that out, they’ll keep falling off that same stupid painted horse, trying to grab that same old brass ring.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.