Theatre of the Reconstruction

at The Garage

It’s hard not to wonder what made writer-director Scott Turner think this chronically obscure, confused, and confusing play was a finished work worthy of production. The second part of the unfinished Festival of Light Trilogy, Exhumed is full of college-student nihilism, pseudo-religious claptrap; and meaningless dialogue that goes on and on without advancing a story or differentiating characters.

Supposedly Turner’s previous play, Enemies of the Moon, the first installment in the Festival of Light Trilogy, had its intriguing aspects–something I don’t doubt. Even Exhumed had its moments–but they were only moments. Some of Turner’s ideas for staging Exhumed are interesting, though not all of them work as well as his eccentric–although not terribly original–decision to stage the play on various platforms and performance areas set throughout the Garage’s huge auditorium, or his insistence on breaking the audience into three groups, spreading us throughout the performance area. This rearrangement of the audience places us in the midst of the play’s action and gives each section of the audience a radically different view of the show.

Unfortunately, not even an infinite number of clever environmental theater tricks could have saved this play. There isn’t much of a story from what I could tell. It’s about Reed, a young man who comes to Chicago, befriends a wino living in the streets, takes to drinking too much, shaves his head, moves in with a junkie, then breaks up with her because she sleeps with his best friend (which hardly matters because he and his girlfriend do nothing but shoot up and then crab at each other like bored honeymooners in hell).

This story is told nonlinearly, which is to say incoherently, with scenes from different points in Reed’s life. In Turner’s words (from the playbill): “The play is made up of fragments of memory and hallucination in the mind of a man in self-confinement. He calls up images of himself and the people around him during the stages that brought him to his present state. . . . The images do not always appear in linear order.”

Turner’s introduction fairly describes his play, with the exception of his optimistic last sentence: “It is only with the conclusion of the entire progression that the whole becomes clear.” The only thing clear at the end of Exhumed is that it’s over.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell the hallucinations from the memories. I’m reasonably certain that the woman dancing frenetically in the forest was a dream, but I’m not so sure whether the boring, nightmarish scenes involving the bossy, sadistic woman (who might be “The Prophet”) that kept coming back (and coming back and coming back) were bona fide hallucinations, or whether those interminable scenes represented Reed’s life in some sort of mental institution or rehabilitation unit. Nor, to be honest, did I care. These scenes in particular lasted far too long, and always involved lots of painfully bad poetry–the Prophet has a fondness for lines like “It’s the flame of one hundred sacred candies [burning] with archangel glare”–and lots and lots of gratuitous violence. At one point Reed is pulled out of his high chair and thrown onto the ground, only to be hauled back up into his chair by a hook and cable. (There are advantages to doing theater in an old garage.)

Many of the key characters in this story are played by more than one actor, and Reed is played by no less than five different actors, described in the program as “Reed at 18,” “Reed at 25,” “Reed in Limbo,” “Reed in Forest,” and “Reed in Chair.” Because no one enters a scene saying “So, Reed in Limbo, how do you like Chicago?” or “Hey Reed in Chair, can I borrow your phone?” you never really know for certain which Reed is in which scene. Of course, it really doesn’t matter, because no attempt has been made to show the difference between, say, “Reed at 18” and “Reed at 25.” Oh, “Reed at 25” has a shaved head, and “Reed at 18” likes Pop Tarts. But Turner never gives us a clue to how this 18-year-old with a wino for a friend became that 25-year-old with a junkie for a girlfriend.

My guess is that Turner doesnt know the answer himself, and has used all these confusing experimental tricks–fragmentation, eccentric staging, multiple actors playing the same character–as a screen to hide his lack of understanding of Reed’s predicament. The other possibility is that Turner’s urge to create experimental theater has so hopelessly muddled and confused his original story that what started as an interesting story of a junkie coming to realize, as William Burroughs puts it, “what’s on the end of his fork” soon became a hopeless, jumbled mess. As it stands now, Exhumed may well be the worst thing to happen in a Chicago garage since the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.