at Cafe Voltaire

Few theater companies in Chicago fail as marvelously as Nomenil. Instead of offering yet another rehashing of an American classic or a moth-eaten musical comedy (in other words, the stuff everyone did in college) in a city already knee-deep in theatrical nostalgia, Nomenil creates original extravaganzas that threaten to violate the limits of taste and sanity. While they haven’t fully made good on that threat yet, their third production, Eat Your Art Out, sends out shock waves that may shake up the terra firma of Chicago’s theater community.

The first rule in a Nomenil production is that there are no rules. Time and space are stretched and distorted in any direction that will serve the needs of an imaginatively cheesy script. Melodramatic hallucinations intrude on mundane moments like unexpected party guests bearing cheap but exotic gifts. Absurdly overdone characters, with names like Madame Quiche, A. Fag, and Crueller Pigg, race about the stage tearing through thick, literary monologues. Losing your bearings is rarely this much fun.

The opening act of Eat Your Art Out shows just how far Nomenil has come since its first hesitant steps last spring. Adam, a painter, earnestly confesses his frustration at not being able to capture in paint the mesmerizing images in his head. This minute-long monologue has all the trappings of every dreary self-reflective bit of poetic realism ever seen onstage, in which the artist’s struggle to create is supposedly as traumatic as world famine. But then Adam’s ninth-grade guidance counselor, Betty Badadvice, bursts on wagging her wigged head in spasms of optimism, nearly falling out of her unsensible pumps. She advises Adam to give up on being an artist, since it’s a profession steeped in pain and misery, and channel his creativity into the occasional handicraft. She herself makes lawn sheep out of steel wool and puff-art T-shirts (whatever they might be).

Returning home in the blink of an eye, Adam encounters his sexually predatory, ever half-undressed roommate Lou, who launches into a melodramatic story about picking up a guy in the local laundromat, the Dramaturgent. As Lou speaks the guy appears, casually leaning against a wall, but when he realizes he’s actually a stranger’s remembered version of himself he’s seized by utter panic and confusion.

And so it goes, levels of reality continually folding in on themselves with all the magical efficiency of an unforgettable dream. And as in a dream, Nomenil’s best images carry deep psychological resonance. Miriam, an emotionally erratic drag queen with an artificial heart, goes on a murderous rampage and eats the hearts of her victims. Miriam’s sister, who keeps a machete in her vagina, has castrated nearly every man in the county.

Despite the reeling, rigorous beauty of much of their writing, playwrights Allen Conkle and Courtney Evans delight in making fun of their own artistry, never failing to include the most mundane images and cheapest jokes. Roberta, a sexually confused amateur chef, finds her lifelong dream coming true when offered the job of creating a new line of frozen dinners for Kraft. She loves her former boyfriend for hiding paprika in the dishwasher: he added spice to her life.

Conkle and Evans’s consciously gay theater turns conventional notions of sexuality on their head. The more devotedly heterosexual a character is, the more he or she is drawn inexorably into boring normalcy. Conkle and Evans carry on the tradition of Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theater Company, whose grandly theatrical, gender-befuddling plays helped establish camp as a powerful theatrical tool.

Ultimately Nomenil can’t sustain the riotous energy created during the first act of Eat Your Art Out, however: nearly every intriguing thread begun in the first act leads to a frazzled end in the second. Even the writing grows threadbare, with only a handful of well-crafted images. Conkle and Evans are still struggling to rid their work of the constraints of conventional drama; over its two hours this play becomes disappointingly realistic as the enticingly improbable is replaced by the merely actual. Eat Your Art Out eventually shrinks to a manageable size–but unmanageability is its greatest asset.