Theater Oobleck

You can assume that even bad Oobleck’s going to be better–smarter, funnier, stranger, truer–than nine-tenths of whatever else is available. Ugly’s First World is brilliant Oobleck. See it now and often.

Honest to God, if this show were running in New York right now, the downtown critics would be falling all over themselves trying to deconstruct its semiotics. The Performing Arts Journal would be publishing long, anxious essays on it; and Joseph Papp would feel obliged to encourage it, giving it a high-profile remounting that would make stars of certain cast members, causing the Ooblecks to squabble among themselves, fall out, and finally disband. It’s that good.

It’s also that unusual. Theater Oobleck’s one of the maybe half dozen–no, make that four–Chicago companies with a real, live, functioning vision. Their shows not only look but act and think differently from other shows. Hip utopians who reject the tyranny of directors, survive on donations, and preach the capitalist End of Days, the Ooblecks produce work that’s at once intellectually precise and wildly imaginative, deeply earnest and loads o’ fun.

Also incredibly erudite and very, very gross. This is a group that can turn vomit into a multilayered, almost mystical motif. Billed as the Oobleck Halloween play, Ugly’s First World sure enough opens on the image of a barfing bag lady–but leaps before long into a sort of Miltonian Bizarro World, where a motley bunch of would-be divinities vie for control of a crumbling, postcolonial heavenly empire.

In the cosmos according to Oobleck, God and the angels consume human suffering. It’s an essential commodity for them; they depend on it to maintain their standard of living–the way, say, we Americans depend on third-world labor to maintain ours. They administer earth as a plantation colony, for the cultivation and export of suffering.

But earthly advances like agriculture have gradually reduced suffering production to the point where it can no longer meet demand. God created hell as a cheap alternative source of suffering, but now he uses it mainly as a gulag–a dumping ground for political enemies and undesirables. The infernal regions have become so overcrowded, in fact, that inmates are being paroled back to earth a la Willie Horton, where they tear barfy bag ladies to pieces and gnaw their bones.

Even the angels are bailing out, escaping to earth via their own version of an underground railway. The celestial economy’s in ruins and the divine regime’s ready to fall.

Naturally, there’s a rush to fill the cosmopolitical vacuum left by God’s overthrow. T.S. Eliot, Tarzan, Lady Greystoke, and the great English occultist, Aleister Crowley, all back candidates–including Ugly, a zombie from hell with a chip on his shoulder.

Ugly’s First World is an English major’s delight, full of sly, hilarious plays on an entire literary tradition, from Mallory to Edgar Rice Burroughs–and featuring a special homage to Eliot, whose fetid mix of modernist despair and feudal nostalgia comes in for the cruelest, most perceptive, and well-deserved dissection I’ve seen since a professor of mine read “Prufrock” aloud over some overwrought Wagner.

Ugly suffers the usual Oobleck after-intermission doldrums, the usual needless–as opposed to marvelous–digressions. But there’s so much I love about this awful, spazzy show, with its Grand Guignol tastes, its X-ray cultural vision, and its perfect heart. People like to call John Logan Chicago’s best young playwright–but that’s ridiculous when there’s someone around with the breadth and command, the wit and substance and sheer force of imagination Jeff Dorchen demonstrates in this script and in his previous Oobleck effort, The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard. Logan does nice historical dramas in well-structured, imitative styles. Dorchen turns history upside down in ways nobody’s ever seen before. There’s no comparison.

Of course, Dorchen’s got the advantage of having Oobleck to work with. Which gives him Mickle Maher’s snaky Crowley. And Lisa Black’s wonderfully intense Lady Greystoke. And Randy Herman’s peculiarly affecting Stupid the Zombie. And his own amazing Ugly; as well as Danny Thompson’s ingenious Eliot, straying back and forth between Charlie Chan and Dagwood Bumstead as he tries to hold on to simple propositions in the face of infinite complexities.