BURNIN’ WITH THE 8 BALL
Main Line Productions
at the Chicago Actors Project
Last year, in Blind Parrot’s production of Artaud at Rodez, Artaud’s muse was a sultry leather queen, seductive, snakelike, and powerful. From the looks of playwright Joe Larocca’s latest play, it made a strong impression on him. In Burnin’ With the 8 Ball, Larocca has written a whole play for Artaud’s muse, only now she’s visiting an artist of the 80s, a fucked-up writer who worships himself and Joe Strummer, guitarist for the Clash. And the muse herself is more than a little out of control.
Most of the action in Burnin’ With the 8 Ball takes place over the course of one evening. Mercury, a writer, has just won a prestigious award. A party is being thrown for him, but he refuses to leave his hotel room even though his meek, shy wife, Beadle, keeps coming into the room to beg him to come downstairs.
Mercury has more pressing matters on his hands. His demon muse, Ultra, is undertaking a coup. She thinks it’s time for a change. Ultra wants to take over more of Mercury’s life, she wants him to be her mate. Mercury, locked in an alternate dimension, is both captivated and repelled by her, and they dance a dangerous duet, arguing all the while about art, the 80s, and mythology, as well as other, sometimes incomprehensible things. Finally, Mercury gets fed up with Ultra’s constant nagging and raving and tries to do away with her. But she is, of course, a part of himself. Abolishing her, Mercury puts himself in an emotional tight spot from which there is little chance of escape.
The plot, however, is probably the least important aspect of Larocca’s play. More significant are both the visual imagery and the ideas that Mercury, Ultra, and Beadle bandy about.
Main Line Productions (Larocca is a founding member and its resident playwright) states that its purpose is “to throw off the staggering shackles of the American Dream and see what monsters they have birthed. Punk Expressionism is our key to the subconscious. . . . We use Punk as our tool in the way a surgeon would wield a chain-saw. We are about going beneath surfaces.”
Burnin’ With the 8 Ball certainly reflects these goals. Though I’m not sure how to interpret the line about using punk as a surgeon would a chain saw, Ultra’s appearance and Mercury’s style do recall elements of the early 80s punk scene. And famous punker Joe Strummer figures prominently in Mercury’s life.
The play could be seen, too, as a modern form of expressionism. Expressionist theater originated in Germany in the early 1900s, and its basic idea was that it’s what is inside of man that is fundamentally true. It followed that external reality in the theater should reflect those inner sensations and perceptions. Most expressionist plays concentrated on man’s negative aspects; the main theme was that man’s spirit has been distorted by false ideals. Many of the plays took the form of searches or pilgrimages. Physical objects onstage–like sets, props, the costumes, lights, and even the actors themselves–were distorted, strange in shape, color, or movement.
Burnin’ With the 8 Ball has all these elements. Mercury journeys within himself. He incorporates many of the false ideals of the 80s–he’s obsessive about weight lifting and his appearance. He and his muse are both, in general, despicable people. Mercury and Ultra parade about in wild makeup and costumes, hissing and shouting their lines. The set is unrecognizable as a hotel room; instead, it offers a vision of Mercury’s inner self: a seedy metal shelter with broken mirrors, dripping wax, and a telephone on the wall that’s conspicuous because it’s the only undistorted object.
The play is exciting in both form and language. Larocca’s style is strongly lyrical, full of stunning images. But he doesn’t know when to stop. Burnin’ With the 8 Ball is about twice as long as it should be, and Larocca gets so caught up in the words that he forgets to keep the action going. Phrases are repeated over and over; monologues lasting four or five minutes have about one minute of content. Larocca is further hampered by his codirector, John Harriman. Visual images and vocal stylization overwhelm the words, when the words are the meat and potatoes of Burnin’ With the 8 Ball. The scenes are also unfocused. So much happens that nothing happens. It is unclear what is supposed to be important. The result is that Mercury doesn’t make much of an inner journey, he just goes around in circles.
Despite the production’s lack of focus, Harriman displays remarkable talent in the role of Mercury. He exudes a frightening power and raw energy. Harriman’s Mercury has a minuscule fuse, but his most interesting moments come when he is relaxed, talking and moving in a relatively normal manner. At the end of the play, for instance, Mercury is telling a friend about his weekend and slips into 80s jargon. We have Just seen Harriman as Mercury fall to pieces, and his eyes are still eerily ringed with black, but he becomes totally cool, almost a California beach bum.
Stephanie Barto is inconsistent as Beadle, Mercury’s wife, but she offers a striking and refreshing contrast with the artist and his alter ego. Barto delivers Beadle’s monologue about living in Toronto and meeting Genet with an engaging simplicity. Even when Mercury purposefully tries to upstage her–he lifts weights, poses before the mirror, pretends to hang himself–Barto manages to keep the focus on Beadle.
Violet-Skye Valentine is excruciating as Ultra. She doesn’t know whether to look at Mercury or the audience. Her voice maintains an annoying harshness, never changing tone or inflection. And she doesn’t seem to know what she is trying to accomplish or what she is saying; instead she struts about the stage, casually and for no apparent reason untying her leather bodice.
Studio X, which designed the production, creates a wonderful atmosphere in which strange things are the norm and there is no comfort. Zeke Gonzalez, the makeup and blood person, enhances the eerie distortions with the grotesque, Rocky Horror-like faces he gives Ultra and Mercury.