at the Blue Rider Theatre, through March 31

Living in Flames

Todd Alcott

at the Neo-Futurarium, through March 30

By Justin Hayford

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra may produce a world-class sound, but onstage at Orchestra Hall they look like shit: several dozen musicians crammed up against one another, some atop cruddy risers, sawing away beneath a clutter of suspended microphones and wires, packed into mostly ill-fitting swallowtail tuxedos and displaying a variety of poor postures. Only this season did someone think to re-cover Barenboim’s late-70s-Camaro-interior red-shag podium with a tasteful gray remnant. And from my vantage point in a bargain-basement subscription seat, shoved up against the stage so far house right I’m practically next door, I get an unobstructed view of a lot of really bad footwear in the double bass section. But when the CSO cooks, focused on nothing but sound, thankfully they disappear into their music.

The CSO could learn a thing or two about visual presentation from MASS (Movement and Sonic Sculpture), a scrappy four-person ensemble whose annual budget probably wouldn’t get all the shoes on the Orchestra Hall stage shined. In the Blue Rider’s homey space, which sports a fresh coat of forest green paint, two mammoth Close long bows (named after MASS member Bill Close, who designed and built them) command the stage, their 25-foot aluminum frames lurking in the shadows like skeletal Viking ships on a peaceful night sea. Against one wall stands a “conjure drum” held aloft in a graceful metal frame designed by ensemble member Jacqueline Westhead. Next to it is a “harp of hurdy-gurdies,” a poetic collision of wood, wires, and hand cranks; it could be mistaken for the inner workings of a martian player piano. Hanging on the opposite wall is the breathtakingly beautiful chrysalis drum, with a fan of iridescent strings rising from the floor and attaching to its towering drumhead. Under lighting designer Kevin Rechner’s mottles and pin spots, MASS offers a visual feast before playing a single note.

But when it comes to making music, MASS could learn a lot about focus from the CSO–or, for that matter, from the Chicago Bulls. MASS’s hour-long concert, while not without its haunting moments and acoustical surprises, ends up a series of musical digressions though it lacks even a meaningful trajectory from which to digress.

Of course, MASS isn’t interested in working in a classical tradition. They compose improvisationally rather than scoring their works. Their music belongs to the moody, ambient school, more orchestrated atmosphere than finished composition. Whether they’re stroking the long bow’s 18 strings, tapping ordinary drinking glasses, or bowing a cello, the MASS musicians tend to produce spare and mournful music with simple, predictable progressions and heavy doses of minor and suspended chords. The three pieces that make up the evening–Conjure, Tricycle, and Hawk’s Gaze–are painted in similar (at times nearly identical) musical colors. While other contemporary performance musicians, most notably Meredith Monk, find fullness in simple, haunting phrases, MASS’s simplicity tends to devolve into uniformity. And while their manipulation of timbre counterpoints is at times quite sophisticated, particularly in the lengthy conversations between cello and long bow, more often than not their music is a rather featureless tonal wash.

Then again, MASS isn’t interested in pure music but in the integration of music and movement. Rather than enhancing each other, however, both tend to be watered down, neither receiving adequate attention. MASS’s choreography–a somewhat generic pastiche of modern dance gestures laced with superficial spookiness–often degenerates into Moving in Slow Motion While Staring Into Space (that deadly and nearly ubiquitous performance convention that seems to have stalled Baubo Performance Project’s development, if their most recent piece is any indication). Other times director Kay Cosgriff seems content to let the performers simply meander, whether they’re dancing or banging a drum or playing a flute. It’s as though MASS considers it a cardinal sin to stay put and play music. But a wandering flutist is not necessarily more interesting–or more theatrical–than a stationary one, especially when the movement is as forced and unconvincing as it is here.

In any artistic project there’s only so much creative energy to go around. It feels as though MASS has diffused its energy across myriad fussy details rather than channeling it into the essentials: composing and performing music. For music is the foundation of the work, as they readily admit on at least an unconscious level; after all, they have given over nearly the entire stage to their pair of long bows. The musical instruments are repeatedly in the way of the movement, however, and that should tell them something.

By attempting to choreograph and stylize everything in the same somber fashion–from playing the long bow to picking up a pair of drumsticks to putting on a pair of shoes–the ensemble simply tries too hard, attempting to force significance out of even the most trivial gestures. And until MASS’s musical foundation is solid, even the most ingenious movement will amount to little more than window dressing. Rather than focusing on the work, they end up focused primarily on themselves. And it’s the same at a performance as at a cocktail party: the more people focus on themselves, the less interesting they become.

New York monologuist Todd Alcott falls into a similar trap in his autobiographical Living in Flames, which opens the Neo-Futurists’ “Neo Mondo Solo” series. Alcott spends much of the time detailing his exquisite neuroses and chronicling the adventures of his supremely dysfunctional family, seemingly ignorant of the fact that such material has been done to death. His writing is sharp, his focus unwavering, his eye for detail keen, and his sense of humor caustic. But at times he seems bent on proving just how tormented and odd he is, forgetting to ask what any of it has to do with us. When he gets stabbed in Tompkins Square Park, for example, wearing only his underwear at four o’clock in the morning, his conclusion upon staring at the blade shoved through his arm is, “I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life.” In moments like these Alcott digs a nearly unspannable chasm between himself and his audience.

At the same time he continually struggles to bridge that gap, and his desperate attempts to commune with his audience give his performance a palpable edge. Built like a chopping block with severely cropped black hair, gesticulating with the furious precision of Toscanini’s irate truck-driver cousin, Alcott locks eyes with his audience, nearly pleading for empathy. When he succeeds the results are stunning, as in his opening piece, “The Jaws of Love.” He begins by defining his (and our) humanity in an unabashedly cynical way: “I’m human, I’m an idiot, it follows.” Then he shows just how joyously idiotic we can be. “Have you ever looked into someone’s eyes and been reduced to the size of a pin?” he asks. “You ever see someone toss their hair back and it made you fall silent?”

Significantly “The Jaws of Love,” the evening’s high point, is the only monologue out of ten that Alcott tells in the second person: the more he elevates his material above self-analysis, the more resonant and inclusive it becomes. This is especially true of his lengthy final piece, “Royal.” For a good deal of it he lolls in self-pity, painting himself the victim of negligence since as a child no one ever told him what was going on, even when his mother was dying of cancer (Alcott skirts the question of why he never asked). But when he zeroes in on the archetypal guts of his story–the struggle to wrest power from a tyrannical father–he taps into a rich myth as old as civilization itself. Here Alcott is touched by genius.

Essentially, because he’s smarter than much of his material, Alcott sells himself short in Living in Flames. We don’t need another professional confessor, but we do need mythmakers, those inspired few who reify our dream life. As essayist Frank Gonzalez-Crussi writes, “We hurt in our souls–if I may be forgiven the use of this archaic word–from chronic myth-symbol deprivation, just as the seafaring men of the past hurt in their bones from chronic deprivation of Vitamin C.” Living in Flames may be therapeutic for Alcott; as he told one of my Reader colleagues, “Every day I do an edgy monologue like Living in Flames I don’t have to feel that way for a week.” But there’s a wide gulf between art and self-medication. Now that Alcott has Living in Flames out of his system, perhaps he’ll rub some much-needed balm on our weary souls rather than just his own. It takes an artist of Alcott’s intelligence, passion, and insight to heal the wounds that culture inflicts daily–or even to remind us that such wounds exist. For our souls’ sake, let’s hope he’s up to the challenge.

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