Dreiske Performance Company

at the Theatre Building

The stage of Nicole Dreiske’s new one-woman show Don’t Call Me Cleo is littered with books, boxes, pillows, clothes, and furniture–the clutter of an apartment being vacated and a life being reorganized. A woman sitting in front of me commented to her companions as we all waited for the performance to start: “She has a lot of props. Lily Tomlin had nothing.”

Not quite true: what Tomlin had, in her minimalist monologue The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, was sparkle, vitality, and a spontaneous, invigorating rapport with the audience. Nicole Dreiske has technique. And a lot of props.

Dreiske–writer, director, actress, and self-proclaimed “Chicago phenomenon”–was last seen in town with her Dreiske Performance Company in Macondo, a numbingly bad piece inspired oh-so-loosely by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Macondo’s worst flaw was its near incomprehensibility (despite copious program notes explaining the narrative). Cleo, at least, is communicative–crystal clear, indeed, in its depiction of a woman trying to make sense of her life and relationships: “her own three-ring domestic circus,” as Cleo, the “everywoman” character Dreiske plays, puts it.

Cleo–I’m not supposed to call her that, but that’s the name the program notes give her, so what the hell–is a compulsive organizer and a compulsive explainer. As she sorts through packing boxes in preparation for the movers, she talks about the people in her life–her mother, her, child, her boss, her ex-husband–and digs away at the conflicting responsibilities and pressures she feels as an 80s urban superwoman: mother, wife, lover, child, housekeeper, and professional. (I’m not sure what her job actually is, but it must pay well, judging from the chic gray ensemble she wears and the high-tech duplex cleverly suggested by Sam Pappas and Norman Kaeseberg’s set.) “This whole idea of ‘have to'” is what’s got Cleo bothered–what she’s trying to throw off as she seeks internal permission to express anger and self-love and to say “no” to a man who doesn’t enhance her self-esteem.

Judging from Cleo’s account of her marriage, her husband was a first-rate mind-fucker, and she’s got a lot of self-doubt to work out if she fell for the shit she describes to us. Cleo’s story is very specific, but at least some of its specifics will ring true to most anyone who’s loved and lost out. There is wit expressed here, and pain, in the script’s acutely observed minutiae of male/female problems.

So why is Don’t Call Me Cleo so boring? The answer is the conflict between Dreiske’s experimentally based performing style and her attitude. For all her athleticism, and despite the wide range of verbal inflections, both live and on tape (a voice-over to the many sequences of abstract semi-dance ritual), there’s something relentlessly flat and monochromatic about Dreiske’s stage presence. She seeks to create Cleo through an accumulation of physical mannerisms, but every gesture seems tidily studied and mechanically timed. There’s not an ounce of immediacy in the whole show–certainly not in the deadly “audience participation” gimmick that Dreiske employs in a vain (I use the word advisedly) effort to involve viewers.

We, sitting in the theater, are cast in the role of Cleo’s “best friend,” come to help her pack up all her cares and woes. We are expected to respond to Cleo’s running commentary–but only on cue, when we are signaled by a little bell like the ones on tape-recorded instructional programs. Lest we know not what to say, our lines have been written in advance; every time the little bell rings, a slide projects red supertitles on the wall for us to recite in unison. These lines are mostly simple questions: “What?” “What do you mean?” “Why not?” “Why don’t you have a garage sale?” That sort of thing.

The ostensible purpose of this silly and inefficient device is to make us respond more personally to Cleo’s story to set us on the road to the same kind of self-exploration that Cleo has embarked on so determinedly. (“If we want to save the planet out there, we have to save the planet in here,” she says, pointing to her head, in case we missed the point; the word “est” is nowhere mentioned, but its resonance is everywhere.)

But the real, unwanted effect of all this is repelling–because we don’t like other people to program our responses any more than Cleo does. Instead of establishing rapport, Dreiske distances us with her implicit condescension; her cool, measured, teacherly tone doesn’t help matters, either.

Dreiske’s extensive press biography (she’s great at providing paperwork, which is probably why she’s so successful at getting grants to support this stuff) says that she was “inducted into the world of theatre at any early age.” Telling word, “inducted”; for most people who were stagestruck as kids, theater is a world of freedom and adventure, but in Dreiske’s work it seems like the military. Her group piece Macondo featured a team of rigidly trained and emotionally dead performers; here, Dreiske tries to substitute us for her actors.

Speaking of Chicago phenomenons: “If there is a place in New York for a modern 1950s rock parody from Chicago,” sneered reviewer Clive Barnes in the New York Times in 1972, “then Grease might well slide into it. If there is a place.”

There was a place. Grease, which started at the Kingston Mines Theater on Lincoln Avenue, went on to become one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, spawning a hit movie and helping to launch a 50s “nostalgia craze” as a result. The show, written by young actors Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, premiered here in 1971 before being picked up by east coast producers. It was a year of impoverishment, but also innovation, in Chicago’s off-Loop theater; Grease’s local and then national success helped establish this city as a center of new American theater.

Now the Kingston Mines is gone, demolished in favor of a parking lot; Jim Jacobs is in Los Angeles; and Warren Casey is dead. He passed away November 8, at age 53, after a nine-month battle with AIDS.

Grease is certainly Casey’s claim to fame as a writer, though he went on to other projects (including a musical thriller, Mudgett, written with former Reader critic Bury St. Edmund). As it turned out, the example of Grease proved problematic: for a while, it seemed like every local theater company was trying to mount that certain show that would take it to Broadway too. None ever matched Grease’s success; Casey, meanwhile, stayed in Chicago, committed to the theater here. He did a little acting–no one who ever saw his brilliantly funny Bernie Litko in the Organic Theater’s world premiere of Sexual Perversity in Chicago will ever forget it–and he gave and invested money in a good many local theatrical efforts, as if he was returning to the city some of the fortune it had helped him achieve. He also served as a counselor to other young writers, and took pride in the success of his proteges; one he was particularly proud of was Polly Pen, who appeared in Grease here as a teenager and went on to compose the opera Goblin Market.

Casey’s friends and admirers will gather Monday, November 28, at 11 AM at Victory Gardens (a theater he helped found) for a celebration of his life and work. Since everyone who knew Casey recalls him first and foremost as an exceptionally funny man, it should be an upbeat occasion despite his passing. When somebody like Warren Casey dies, it makes me, at least, try to imagine what things would have been like if he’d never lived. Without Warren Casey, life and theater in this city would have been much different, and much poorer.