Anywhere Else Than Here Today

Theater Oobleck

at the Transient Theatre

If all humanity were to disappear, the remainder of life would spring back and flourish. The mass extinctions now under way would cease, the damaged ecosystems heal and expand outward. If all the ants somehow disappeared, the effect would be exactly the opposite, and catastrophic. –Bert Holldobler and Edward W. Wilson, Journey to the Ants

When, exactly, did the labor movement keel over and die? How did the struggle for decent wages, tolerable working conditions, and adequate benefits become indistinguishable from communist insurrection? Who convinced us that whatever is good for the Fortune 500 CEO is good for the country, even as he builds his newest assembly plant overseas and ships foreign nationals here to toil in underground sweatshops?

Perhaps as a nation we still swoon from our Reagan-induced infatuation with opulence, idolizing capitalism’s supposed triumph over socialism in the cold war (a propaganda war created primarily to keep the coffers of military industrialists overstuffed). The folks at Theater Oobleck, on the other hand, have managed to keep their heads on straight. While 99 percent of political theater in Chicago has all the insight and sophistication of Highlights for Children, Oobleck grapples with one of the most pressing and confounding political questions of our day: What will become of the workers’ struggle for an egalitarian, classless society now that Marx and his ilk have been told to sit silently in the corner for the rest of eternity?

Playwright David Ben’t and his colleagues unpack this question in a fanciful, melodramatic science-fiction adventure. And unlike most agitprop theater, Anywhere Else Than Here Today is as entertaining as it is thought provoking, set on an imaginary sailing vessel lorded over by a pompous, inflexible Joseph Conrad wannabe known simply as the Captain. His plan to sail away from the corrupt mass of humanity forever is disrupted when the even more pompous and inflexible Entrepreneur–dressed in cartoonish parody of the Monopoly man–pulls himself from the sea and onto the ship. It turns out that the ship’s two-person crew used to work in the Entrepreneur’s soap factory in Chicago, which hacked out 10 million bars of soap a day. When the Entrepreneur told his “corporate family” that they would have to make some sacrifices for the good of the business–namely give up a third of their wages and all of their benefits–the workers threw him out the window into Lake Michigan. He’d been floating ever since.

As the Entrepreneur lies sputtering on deck, coughing up saltwater, he has only one urgent request of anyone who will listen: “Would you…would you…be my employee?” Without someone working for him, even in the middle of the sea where he has no job of any kind to offer, he loses all sense of identity and collapses into a perpetual state of panic. Similarly, the Captain isn’t a captain without a crew under him, and soon he and the Entrepreneur enter into a furious bidding war over the one crew member willing to put herself up for sale. The two men pile on the offers, doubling and redoubling salaries, throwing in all kinds of benefits, until they realize that they are committing the ultimate capitalist sin: placing the needs of labor above their own need to reap as much profit as possible. Colluding, they immediately withdraw all offers, politely announcing in grave tones that if they were to proceed further, “the economic system would collapse.” Of course, that system takes orders only from the ubiquitous voice of the Market–which is perpetually stacked in capital’s favor, anyway.

If it ended here Anywhere Else would still be more politically engaged–and more entertaining–than most Chicago productions in recent memory. But Ben’t throws in a delicious complication that prohibits a pat solution and gives the play its greatest comic effects. The second crew member, fresh from the Spanish Civil War by way of the Paris Commune, wants desperately to devolve into an ant.

To him, ants live in the perfect egalitarian society, where “everyone is free because everyone knows exactly what to do.” He sidesteps one troubling point–that this “free” society is ruled by a queen–by dismissing her as a figurehead. Some may call her anthill a fascist regime, but he declares, echoing the Sex Pistols, “She ain’t no human being!” Of course, the mindlessness of an austere ant society–“To the ant, the Amish seem positively rococo,” he yelps–throws into high relief one of the central crises of Marx’s social determinism: the question of free will. The ant-in-training easily bargains away his free will for the chance to become an unalienated laborer: a worker ant experiences no schism between who he is and what he does. He’ll even throw away any sense of personal identity. “One ant alone is really no ant at all,” he explains, sounding very much like the Entrepreneur and the Captain, who can’t exist without underlings. In the final analysis, this crew member is simply the inverse of his own worst enemies.

When the crew member successfully–and hilariously–devolves into an ant right before our eyes, he also throws away the originality and creativity that made Marx for one such an influential thinker. In his most subtle and ingenious twist, Ben’t underscores this dilemma through the crew member’s insistence upon creating a new ant language, cleverly called “Formicidian” (based on the verb for ant locomotion, “formicate”). This language is entirely gestural, almost dancerly. By jumping around making ridiculous gestures, the crew member imagines that he can overcome the kind of alienation that print engenders in literate people, when information about experience becomes detached from experience itself. For him a word will be a lived event, untranslatable; as in oral cultures, communication and experience will be a single dynamic event.

As Walter J. Ong points out in Orality and Literacy (a work Ben’t indirectly quotes), “By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.” But Ong goes on to say that oral societies are typically conservative and traditionalist, acquiescing to received authority: “Since in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages.” What would prevent the classist messages about a “successful” economy that have permeated the West for most of the 20th century from guiding this newborn ant?

Admirably, Ben’t leaves this question unresolved, as he does the other great uncertainties of contemporary socialism. He doesn’t try to offer answers; rather he points out just how complicated the questions are– questions that hardly anyone else in Chicago theater bothers to ask. And he does so without sacrificing clarity or humor. Anywhere Else is no strident academic treatise. Like much of Oobleck’s work, it is an intentionally overblown, neo-operatic romp, complete with hokey costumes, absurd improbabilities, and even a raucous pit band (the overture includes a noisy argument between two musicians). It takes a long, hard look at the world and reminds us just how complicated a place it is. For my money, it’s what theater is all about.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phil Cantor.