Head Poison


at the Storefront Theater

By Jack Helbig

Plasticene, which specializes in physical theater, has always waged war on cliches, defying conventions and dashing expectations. Their first piece, the 1995 Doorslam, upended a device that’s launched a thousand comedy routines: opening and closing doors onstage. That show totally frustrated a friend of mine who’s a circus clown: he was shocked that Plasticene didn’t exploit any of the set’s comic potential–there were no doors slammed on hands, no people knocked off their feet when a door unexpectedly opened out.

Lots of avant-garde theaters avoid cliches. But the Plasticene folks refuse to follow even avant-garde conventions. You never see them running around in oversize clothing. They don’t steal bits from better-known or better-funded groups or individuals. You never feel, oh yeah, this slow-motion stuff is warmed-over Robert Wilson, or all these guys in dark suits, umbrellas, and bowler hats are Magritte rip-offs.

Plasticene performers also don’t call attention to the amazing things they do onstage. When certain local groups incorporate circus skills into their shows, they do it with a self-satisfied “Did you see what I just did?” Plasticene makes similarly difficult feats look like just one element among many in their visually startling pieces. A running gag in the troupe’s new Head Poison involves tables flying up toward the ceiling on cables, so when Mark Comiskey is hauled up by one hand 10 or 15 feet above the ground, it doesn’t seem dangerous–it’s just part of the show.

Every Plasticene work is a collaborative effort that begins with a very long rehearsal process, usually six to nine months. And one feels that these guys don’t care if anyone understands what they’re doing as long as they get the freedom to play together and the show is unlike anything anyone, including themselves, has done before. This approach requires admirable dedication and fervor, but watching the shows often demands a lot of patience and attention.

When Second City hired Dexter Bullard, the evil genius behind Plasticene, to direct Second City E.T.C. in Better Late Than Nader, he proved he can’t create a conventional show if he’s paid to. There were no big, bully Chicago guys, no scrunchy-faced housewives with cat’s-eye glasses, in Better Late Than Nader. The show began the way Plasticene shows always do, with a montage of brief scenes introducing us to the performers. This intro bombed the night I was there: the audience was apparently expecting an opener packed with the usual rapid-fire jokes. In what followed, there were set-ups with no punch lines, skits without setups, and scenes whose vulgarity overstepped Second City bounds. Unfortunately these came across as mistakes.

At the time I thought the problem was that Bullard wasn’t good with comedy. When I thought back on previous Bullard triumphs, all I could remember were such serious works as his terrifying version of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore for A Red Orchid Theatre and the last Plasticene show, the somber, troubling 1999 Come Like Shadows…, a work full of images of domination and enslavement.

Now I know better. Head Poison is very funny–in some ways it feels like the Second City show Bullard would have directed if Second City-style comedy weren’t so restricted. It’s structured like a comedy revue, with a series of overlapping sketch-length scenes, all of them accompanied by Eric Leonardson improvising on an instrument of his own invention. And it builds like a good comedy show, with more and more laughs as the evening progresses. In fact Head Poison is unified by its comedy, its props (doors that turn into prison walls or windows and then into tables), and its running devices, like short blasts of techno-house music.

But these intensely physical scenes have almost no dialogue and often feel more like dance than theater–dance by performers who care more about creating onstage relationships than about looking graceful. In one striking bit, the actors begin by setting formal tables, a task they soon transform into a game, throwing plates and silverware across the stage at one another, intercepting these missiles, and even setting the “table” on the floor.

In something of a departure from the usual Plasticene show, each of the five ensemble members carefully creates a consistent character. Brian Shaw plays a judgmental guy who rarely makes mistakes, Comiskey a put-upon schlemiel, and Dominic Conti a hapless fool, the most childish of the three men. Sharon Gopfert is a flirty, kind of goofy girl while Julia Fabris is a self-contained, reserved woman who fights like hell to hold on to her dignity.

Even though there’s no explicit narrative, one can read a story or stories in the action. At times the scenes seem like outtakes from Tiny Dimes, a comedy about corporate life that Bullard directed a number of seasons ago for Famous Door. At other times the performers seem to be guests at a very wild and strange party: the final 20 minutes of this 90-minute show resemble nothing so much as the last wild section of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, another unconventional comedy.

It takes a while for the humor in Head Poison to sink in because it takes almost half the show to figure out that we’re watching a comedy. And it’s thrilling to see order come out of what looked like chaos. But it’s a hard thing for performers to pull off. Being misunderstood–especially if one is dismissed as having nothing to say–is one of the risks of refusing to use cliches. I’m just glad Bullard and the Plasticene performers take that risk–and in the process discover new ways of making us laugh.

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