Goodman Theatre Studio

By Carol Burbank

With “Transformations,” Goodman artistic associate Regina Taylor has made a rare treat available to Chicago audiences. This vivid collaborative project offers a powerful, articulate vision of five works by some of the most challenging playwrights in contemporary theater.

Some of these plays are about race, some are not, but the mostly African-American cast of six intensifies our awareness of racial issues. Henry Godinez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce, two of the five directors who pieced together this theatrical collage, also perform in the ensemble, which gleefully, kaleidoscopically reshapes itself as it moves from play to play. The glee itself gives an effortless, childlike grace to the performances, both illuminating the plays’ mystery, horror, and verbal acrobatics and easing us into the strangeness of each new story.

The plays are framed and linked by tape recordings and slide projections offering definitions of words related to the productions: “box,” “fly,” “transformation.” The tape loop and large but not quite legible projections interrupt the usual preshow rituals of reading the program and chatting with neighbors as we’re confronted with the many meanings of words, drawn to the white noise of language. Exploring meaning and naming, identity and isolation, truth and imagination, all five plays juggle words as objects. Like the preshow definitions, these plays argue for the artful, untrustworthy, necessary power of language to contain the world.

Peter Handke’s Prophecy, directed by local choreographer-dancer Marianne Kim, is a bold beginning. Handke, best known for his confrontational play Offending the Audience, expresses our alienation from language by writing almost nonsensically, forcing us to make sense out of a barrage of words and images that never quite fit. In Prophecy six people announce the most banal of insights with the goofy apocalyptic eagerness of visionaries. “The chickens will run like chickens,” they declaim, among other antimetaphorical phrases that, delivered in quick succession, begin to make a funny kind of sense.

Kim intelligently uses her dance sensibility to create a continuously moving interaction among the six performers, Speakers A through F. As they deliver their pithy statements they develop a series of quick gestures to express the frenzied devotion they feel toward their prophecies. They vie for the spotlight and create stage pictures that capture a fleeting eroticism or shifting power relationships. A scenario might mimic a dance, or an interrogation; in one image of “a needle in a haystack,” two of the posed dancers rise up and down like figures from a subdued episode of Hee Haw. The relentless rhythm of the language, the actors’ tapping feet, and the dubbed-in pulsing music lend an urgency to the phrases. “The vultures will circle like vultures; ordinary people will behave like ordinary people.” Phrases become comic, horrible, elusively sensible in this fitting introduction to an evening of theater that questions the very nature of language and the self.

Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers fractures narrative even more decisively than Handke’s gentle clown show, layering the past and present of a woman who’s the bastard child of a white man and his black cook. In Susan V. Booth’s staging, Kennedy’s hard-edged, dislocating assemblage of multiple identities assault Ora Jones’s earnest, passionate She, the mixed-race woman torn to pieces by her possible selves. This strategy, which blends different performance styles and narratives, creates a volatile tension that brings out the compelling, sometimes abstract brutality of Kennedy’s antiracist collage. In the play’s productive melee Darryl Alan Reed is particularly skillful as the Negro Man, She’s hopeful lover, then protector-tormentor, then fearful victim. He manages to create a present moment at the center of the play’s psychic maelstrom. The sharply cued, shockingly bright lighting and loud sound cues underscore the fractured roles threatening the heroine and frame the chaos with a vivid theatricality.

Taylor directs Dr. Kheal, a one-man diatribe by Maria Irene Fornes, a playwright whose sophisticated semantic turns and skillful characterizations make her one of the visionaries of contemporary playwriting. Played with virtuoso abandon by Godinez, Dr. Kheal is a professor who uses a chalkboard and his frenzied intelligence to convince us of the existence of…everything and nothing. The audience joins the rest of the cast–framed by the cunning cubicles of Todd Rosenthal’s versatile, evocative set–to become his students in a class that veers without warning from shocking to hysterical to poignant. I found myself wishing my professors had been this insane, this inspired, this charmingly sinister.

Sam Shepard’s Red Cross is as skillfully directed by Godinez, although the play itself is not as interesting as the others. Shepard has become rich and famous on the basis of hard-assed, highly structured psychodramas more real than realism. And although his macho approach obviously strikes a cultural chord, this play reflects his weaknesses. Two characters in a hotel room talk about their afflictions (migraines and crabs) and philosophize about failure, convincing themselves of their moral rectitude and talking each other into further suffering. Jones, Reed, and Bruce as the maid make the characters feel real, and Godinez has added a few touches that twist the situation into a more intriguing institutional trap: watchers perched above the set note the characters’ behavior as if the goings-on were a science experiment. The outside world is represented here by a dauntingly bright light behind a plastic sheet, a “boundary” that heightens the play’s feeling of entrapment. Still, the formulaic structure–the characters swap afflictions and roles with predictable vehemence–dampens the experiment.

The same is true of The One, Oliver Pitcher’s exploration of the self-limiting madness of a black man trapped in his own cultural tape loop: this playwright’s once innovative concepts have also become formulas. After a while it’s not necessary to listen to the words because, as in some avant-garde sitcom, the formula is effortlessly fulfilled.

Earnestly played by Tab Baker and directed by Bruce, Pitcher’s play is a madman’s fractured reconstruction of his past as he flails against the specters that haunt him. Most interesting is the character’s well-performed, carefully paced revelation of an obsession with a black World War II soldier who fires on Nazi prisoners, overcome with rage at their whiteness. His obsessions with mother, ex-girlfriend, and an audience of aborted fetuses are just as central, but because Baker races through these relationships with a whining frenzy they seem even more psychoanalytically stereotypical than they might have otherwise.

Despite these weaker plays, “Transformations” is an event of importance to Chicago’s struggling avant-garde multicultural theater community. By giving Taylor and her collaborators the space to fully explore the implications of language, race, and cultural meaning, the Goodman has provided a model for future experiments. The tight ensemble–including designers Rosenthal, Loren Coco Mayer, and Joseph Appelt–have created a collage of words, gestures, and confrontations with a powerful, eerily charming intelligence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dr. Kheal (“Transformations”) photo by Eric Y. Exit.