Curious Theatre Branch

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s become fashionable in artistic circles to have been sexually molested as a child. This is not to say that such abuse is not a deplorable misuse of power and a travesty of filial loyalty, nor is it an attempt to find fault with the societal candor that now allows such crimes to be brought to light. But when confession of a particular experience guarantees nurturing attention and adulation for the confessor, the temptation must be great to embroider, if not actually fabricate, vague, enigmatic, and largely unprovable memories. One result of this phenomenon is that–however traumatic incest may be to its victims, however much it stigmatizes the culture that permits it to happen–it is overworked as a subject for art.

This is the only factor that mars an otherwise fine and well-rehearsed performance by Curious Theatre Branch member Anita Stenger. Offered by its creator “to the American Family, with love and anger,” Make Yer Bed and Lie tells the story of a girl (presumably Stenger) whose recollections of her life seem to center around the experience of ordering people away from her bed, beginning at the age of two with the doctor who treated her for spinal meningitis. Then we hear of her oldest brother’s fascination with her–he loiters by her bed, where her mother has swaddled her in secure but stifling safety, and he interrupts her in the bathroom while she showers, no one seeming to hear her as she screams at him to go away. When a coincidence convinces her that wishing someone dead can indeed result in their untimely demise, she vows not to hate her brother for what he has done. And so begins the secret guilt that will inhibit every intergender relationship she has (but not, naturally, her relations with other women–the just-out-of-the-closet lesbian who approaches her college-dormitory bed wants only comfort and affection and withdraws compliantly when requested to do so). We see our protagonist deal with her Catholic good girl/bad girl conflicts, harshly reject a marriage proposal from a suitor (played by a volunteer from the audience), shout a vehement “no” to the advances of an old boyfriend, refuse the passive acceptance expected of her by those who claim to love her, come to terms with her own enjoyment of sex, and eventually even forgive her remorseful brother.

None of this material is particularly original, but Stenger manages to hold our attention for at least 50 of the 60-some minutes her monologue runs. This is partly due to the variety Stenger injects into her presentation–most notably the song fragments she uses to convey information about how she feels (her mother’s neglect is lamented in a blues-rock lyric with “Left to rot” as a refrain) and her quasi-gymnastic movements that suggest physically what’s being said. But vocal and choreographic intricacy cannot carry a solo performance of this duration, nor can personal charm (which has never been lacking at Curious Theatre Branch). Ultimately, the intensity and conviction Stenger imparts to her narrative saves what could be uncomfortably melodramatic or hackneyed material. (A member of the audience asked her after the show how she could do such an emotionally draining piece night after night. “I don’t know,” she answered. “But I’m glad I only have to do it two more times.”)

Make Yer Bed and Lie is preceded by two short solo performance pieces –all presented under the collective title of Curios–that raise the question, latent in virtually all Curious Theatre Branch productions, of whether these artists might be putting us on. In the Cafe Bauer, purportedly based on the song “The Farewell Letter” by Kurt Weill and Erich Kastner, depicts a young lady waiting impatiently for her lover (actress Jill Daly mimes the action of the woman, while a tape describes her movements). When the gentleman does not appear, the jilted woman throws herself to the floor in a tantrum. Homebody consists of Bryn Magnus itemizing in reverse chronological order his various former residences (most of which, judging by the street names, are located in Madison, Wisconsin), then making a quantum jump to prehistoric times and what may have been his first home. The latter part of this piece makes use of numerous pyrotechnic effects–a cigarette lighter, a blowtorch improvised by directing a blast of hair spray through the flame of the lighter, a candle, a pan of burning alcohol. Considering that the theater space has only four onstage lighting instruments, auxiliary illumination is probably a good idea. But I defy anyone to recall a word Magnus said during the final blaze, especially when the wine glass in the center of the alcohol pan cracked and disintegrated in the unevenly distributed heat.

In addition to more lighting equipment, the Curious Theatre Branch’s new home in Wicker Park could use a ceiling and some soundproofing along the Wolcott Avenue wall. But however humble, a permanent space for this always innovative experimental troupe will give it more opportunity to do its own particular brand of theater.