Rhinoceros Theater Festival

Theater Oobleck

at the Curious Theatre Branch

Without great constraints, an artist will never become a master–they define for the artist the territory outside of which a work must not step, beyond which it will communicate less effectively and efficiently. Constraints throw a work of art into high relief, separating the necessary choice from a sea of merely adequate possibilities.

But historically the avant-garde has challenged traditional formal constraints, as artists supplant what they see as antiquated, oppressive conventions with vibrant new approaches, which in turn seem musty and archaic to the next generation’s avant-garde. It’s hard to imagine the scandal surrounding the Impressionists in the 19th century, for example, since their aesthetic has become as ubiquitous and banal as Muzak a century later, but they ventured so far from the accepted standards of their day that critics argued over whether the canvases were unfinished or the artists simply couldn’t paint. But of course the Impressionists attended carefully to formal concerns, just as abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, working nearly 100 years later, adhered to rigid compositional rules; this tension between spontaneity and clarity is what gives his work such power.

Theater Oobleck and Curious Theatre Branch, two of the most intriguing and influential avant-garde companies in Chicago, have long been poised between spontaneity and clarity, though generally spontaneity has carried the day. Oobleck has tended toward the sociopolitical and art historical and Curious toward the psychological and literary, but both companies favor the delicious excesses of the neo-operatic. Their pieces are generally long, effusive, passionate, messy affairs in which the imagination has been allowed to run wild. The journeys such artists as Beau O’Reilly, Jeff Dorchen, Mickle Maher, David Isaacson, and Bryn and Jenny Magnus have taken us on over the years have been exhausting, tortuous, and thrilling.

Typically Oobleck and Curious have neither borrowed nor invented formal constraints. They work without directors, and have seldom edited their works down to manageable unified wholes. Even their best works have at times seemed like unkept gardens, full of a wild beauty obscured at times by overlooked weeds. Both companies have devoted more energy to developing highly imaginative, provocative material than to devising the ingenious containers necessary to hold their idiosyncratic effusions.

David Isaacson’s three one-man pieces are Oobleck’s contribution to this year’s Rhinoceros Festival. The three older works that make up Foot Notes Boot Licks Toe Jams have little in common except the intellectual acuity and incantatory cadence of Isaacson’s writing. The middle piece, “Minutes,” is so exquisitely crafted that Isaacson’s reading of these absurdly bureaucratic minutes from an imaginary meeting of various social-activist agencies provoked one audience member to call out, “This is a put-on, right?” But his more ambitious pieces, despite their fascinating texts, are hampered by a lack of attention to theatrical conventions. In “Havel/Bickle” Isaacson plays Czech president Vaclav Havel reliving a pair of harrowing taxi rides in New York City, and in “Bull/Krupp” he struggles to perform a piece about an international arms manufacturer after discovering that HBO has already turned the story into a movie starring, of all people, Frank Langella and Alan Arkin. In both pieces Isaacson handles multiple characters and perspectives expertly–in fact, in “Bull/Krupp” the characters themselves play multiple characters, with spectacularly humorous results.

But like much of Oobleck’s work, these pieces would benefit from being reined in. Isaacson’s acting is so broad and overwrought in “Havel/Bickle” that at times it overwhelms the often sophisticated material. True, the melodramatic foreboding conveyed by his self-conscious B-grade horror-movie style–the menacing stares, the breathy nervousness–is perfectly appropriate to the eerily coincidental world: Havel flags the same cabdriver on both of his stays in New York, though they’re five years apart. But Isaacson uses the same style throughout, and the more delicate moments that might have given the piece a human scale suffer.

This style also turns Isaacson’s body into a rigid, inexpressive instrument; in marked contrast to his relaxed, welcoming presence in “Minutes,” he seems physically uncomfortable for much of the piece. Whereas the style of “Minutes” nicely complements the material, in “Havel/Bickle” the relationship between style and content (and some might argue between performer and audience) is strangely combative.

“Bull/Krupp” demonstrates just how much potential Isaacson has. Not only does the piece engage the larger social, political, and cultural reality, it engages with its own engagement. Finding that his audacity has been effectively neutralized by HBO, Isaacson focuses on avant-garde political theater itself, its insularity, its obscurity, and its hypocrisy–he admits that he secretly hopes to be noticed by the MacArthur Foundation or, worse, HBO.

As a sort of mirror to the schizophrenic impulses in “Bull/Krupp,” Isaacson blows theatrical unity all to hell. Scenes from what would have been the piece had Isaacson not been derailed by the HBO movie intrude like disobedient children, interrupting him as he tries to explain his crisis of faith to the audience. But even these confessional moments, plaintively honest, continually decay into elaborate theatricality as Isaacson compulsively plays himself and his girlfriend discussing the issues he’d hoped to address in his piece.

“Bull/Krupp” is complicated, entertaining, refreshingly self-deprecating, and politically savvy. But somehow it remains unstructured and therefore out of focus. With so many threads running through the work, Isaacson can’t prevent some of them from unraveling, and by the end a few spots have worn thin. Parts of “Bull/Krupp” seem artificially attached rather than organically integrated. Antithetical hunks butting up against one another do help underscore the chaotic, unresolved subject matter, but this approach seems to work as much by accident as design. When Isaacson claims, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that the strength of the avant-garde comes from its refusal to submit to the tyranny of form, he is perhaps confusing form with formula. (And this assertion is particularly unconvincing considering that these three pieces have been shoehorned together to fit the standard hour-and-a-half theatrical format.) A form is a means, not an end. By more carefully delineating the rules governing his piece, Isaacson may be able to bring the bigger picture into perfect focus.


Rhinoceros Theater Festival

at the Curious Theatre Branch

Longtime Curious Theatre member Bryn Magnus–a playwright nearly unrivaled in his facility with language, except perhaps by fellow members Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus–has encountered similar obstacles. While Isaacson tends to look outward, Magnus generally explores an interior landscape of fantasy, fetish, and illusion, and his elaborate and arresting images serve not as decoration but as windows into his characters’ impulses and desires.

Poetry erupts from their mouths because words have the power to transform the possible into the actual: Magnus understands, perhaps on an intuitive level, how language can be the driving force behind a drama. Yet his fertile imagination is drawn to the detour in almost novelistic fashion, while drama demands that one remain primarily on the highway, or at least a main thoroughfare. Magnus is still searching for a way to bring the many warring impulses in his pieces into harmony, however discordant.

But perhaps his search is about to end. Magnus’s entry in the Rhino Festival, three untitled one-act plays called collectively Invisible Sympathies, marks a turning point: he seems headed toward a much-needed personal investigation of form: these three simple plays display all of Magnus’s creative prowess yet remain within perfectly conventional forms. It’s as though Magnus had forced himself to return to some Playwriting 101 manual. Each piece has only two characters who never leave the stage–who never even interrupt each other. (In one, about a man apparently describing his own autopsy and the replacement of his brain with movie images, there’s technically only one actor, but the darkness in the room seems a separate intelligence.) In each piece the characters singlemindedly pursue their objectives. In the first, two men try to understand marriage; in the second, a desperate actor tries to get an audition from a director who tries to keep the actor from murdering him; in the third, a man attempts to emerge from a psychological darkness. Each piece is simply staged, the actors rarely taking more than a few steps in any direction: Colm O’Reilly performs the third piece without moving a muscle.

Those who feel that the avant-garde ought to look unconventional may believe Magnus has given in to the demands of the theatrical bourgeoisie. But his themes and images are as complicated and unsettling as ever. With the exception of the audition play–which like Isaacson’s “Minutes” is perfectly crafted but rather tame by the author’s standards–these pieces inhabit a nearly mythical realm. The first travels to a slime pond full of transparent toads with gold blood coursing in their veins, toads that somehow promise marital bliss. The third travels beyond death to a place where darkness is alive. Hardly the familiar territory of conventional drama.

Perhaps under the influence of the eloquent, simple writing, Mark Comiskey, Mark Hanks, O’Reilly, and Magnus himself turn in their best performances yet. Every moment is settled, carefully articulated, and fully committed emotionally. It’s as if these artists, after years of wrestling with labyrinthine Curious scripts, have emerged into a clearing where acting becomes effortless.

Of course, the challenge for Magnus and the other Curious and Oobleck artists is to expand this clearing to include full-length works as ambitious and operatic as their past successes. Clarity does not necessarily imply simplicity; a work like John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” to use a pop-culture example, is utterly clear despite its jumble of sounds and tempi. It won’t be easy, for to their credit both companies tackle complicated issues and unruly passions. The messiness of their work is often a sign of its vibrancy and aliveness; I’d take it over Forever Plaid any day. But both these companies are at an important crossroads. They’ve tapped their imaginations and collected some of the most radical, poetic, life-affirming fantasies Chicago has seen in recent years. Yet they must reach a clearer understanding of how their works mean so that they’re not carried away by the exuberance of their own imagery. The trick now is to refine their raw material to its purest essence without diluting it.