Econo-Art Theatre Company

I gather from a short quote of Oscar Wilde in the program that Far Fringe is about the limitations we set on ourselves, the self-imposed prisons we create. If so, that message is impossible to get from the often interesting but astoundingly confusing production at Econo-Art.

Pared to its simplest elements, Far Fringe is the story of six strange Chicagoans and their catastrophic coming together. The prime creator of the disaster is a manic-depressive and currently psychotic caterer (called “the girl” in the program). She has been hired by her selfish, socialite aunt to cater a huge Grant Park benefit for abused children. In the middle of the preparation, the girl hears that her favorite mass murderer, Billy McAllister–who explains that he was just having a very bad and unlucky day when he went on his rampage and that all the killings were bizarre accidents–has been executed. The girl freaks out at the news. Then Billy comes to her in a vision (out of her refrigerator) to tell her to continue his work. She comes to, poisons the food, and proceeds to Grant Park to fulfill her mission.

In the meantime, various oddities have occurred around the city that cause certain characters to meet in Grant Park. Those who show up include the “fat lady,” whose life consists of watching television–she even has a wristband TV for when she goes out–and who believes that everything on the screen is real. There’s also the nasty, high-powered aunt who bullies her own teenage daughter; and the daughter, who has contacted a drug-crazed pervert while doing a phone survey for a class project. There’s the pervert himself, who can’t wait to meet the daughter. And there’s the ghost of Billy McAllister. Added to this is the ever-present, heartless eye of the media, making news the way it sees fit.

And that’s just the story line. What’s going on beneath the surface is even more complicated. There’s something about how the media, television specifically, affects us. Something about death and heaven and hell. Something about insanity–personal and cultural. And child abuse. And the inhumanity of the wealthy. And loneliness, and pornography, and drugs. So much is said that in the end nothing at all is said.

Econo-Art’s production simply seethes with wasted potential. There are moments of brilliance interspersed with long, dreary periods where nothing happens. The problem lies mainly in the confused script by Mark Silvia, who could have an incredible show if he decided what it was about and cut it by half an hour.

Still, Silvia’s innovative staging, Lynn Brown’s dazzling choreography, and Econo-Art’s tight ensemble at times turn the show into a visual feast that’s filled with a zany raw energy. Even walking into the space is interesting, as the two sound people (who also play small roles) are sitting with their equipment onstage. The first 20 minutes play like a performance-art piece. The lights come up dimly on the girl (Lynn Baber), who’s having either a nightmare or a vision–she grabs a butcher knife and stalks her refrigerator. Other lights slowly reveal other characters in highly stylized, choreographed nighttime torments. Their movements get more frenzied, exploding into a group pounding of the air that suddenly turns into a morning yawn.

But then Far Fringe gets bogged down by its story. Plots stagnate. A few cutesy songs are thrown in. What ending there is makes no sense. The main problem, though, is it’s long. The wonderful moments get lost in all the nonsense.

The cast members do solid work with what they have. Lynn Baber is particularly good, showing her character’s insanity in brief, intense episodes, and playing the rest of her lines in a quiet, genuine way. She almost becomes the voice of reason. Christine Furto as the teenage daughter is also strong, being able to show the effects of her emotional battering without seeming at all abnormal. She seems to be just on the verge of standing up for herself and growing up throughout.