Theater Oobleck

at Cabaret Voltaire

Cabaret Voltaire, a little beatnik cafe just off the Elston Avenue industrial corridor, is in its own way the perfect setting for Theater Oobleck’s Godzilla vs. Lent, a collection of seven short comedic one-acts. The place is a mix of past and present bohemian poses and interests. There’s a volume of poetry by Robert Frost on one of the tables; the help all look like Art Institute students on spring break; Brecht freak and man-about-theater Warren Leming can often be found lounging about.

Theater Oobleck, a troupe recently transplanted from Ann Arbor, fits right in. The boys in the group look like hippies, complete with beards, flannel, and denim. The company is a collective, working in consensus without an artistic director. They write their own material, the group embellishing an idea that originates with (and is credited to) a single member. In a more contemporary vein, they fret that they don’t have enough original material by women (although women do play male roles throughout, without explanations or apologies); they also reflect more than a touch of Second City influence (though they’d probably deny it) and pepper their material with up-to-date urban angst and irony.

Oobleck material doesn’t lack ideas–in fact, it sometimes seems to pack too many. It is often frantic, smart, and a little surreal. A good artistic director could fine-tune these folks into something really special, but right now they’re missing a little discipline. Too often they come off like a bunch of college kids trying to prove how clever they are. Once in a while, though, they accomplish something offbeat and promising. These people have great energy and some of the individual performers–particularly Jeff Dorchen, Mickle Maher, and Sarah Brown–are both vital and versatile.

The best piece in Godzilla vs. Lent may well be Helen Michaelson’s “To an Invisible Judge, or a Short Tale,” which uses the Thumbelina story metaphorically with a frightening modern twist. Michaelson’s play is not slap-your-knee funny, but all three of its performers–Brown, John Shaw, and Barbara Thorne–perform to their best advantage. The piece is filled with nuance and tension.

Dave Buchen’s “The Curse of the Bohemian” is a nice little observation on urban displacement. “Why is it you people always follow me?” Maher’s naive bohemian asks a bevy of developers ready to turn his slum neighborhood into yuppie heaven. The piece could easily have deteriorated into a handful of ironic cliches, but Buchen and Maher refuse to indulge them. After the locals deface the development, Maher says, “Hey, I really want to join you guys, but I’m busy with this theater thing”–indicting himself in a cycle of insensitivity.

The first act ends with Shaw’s “The Ghost of Electricity,” probably the best example of Oobleck’s worst traits. Imagine the architect of the Standard Oil Building pondering his phallic creation. Imagine a statue of George Washington, two prancing Founding Fathers, a cameo by John D. Rockefeller, and a ghost. Imagine bits on ego, architecture, democracy, capitalism, greed, and nature. The question you will ask is, why?

But the second act picks up with Maher’s “King! Cow, Episode XIII: Graciousness and Profundity From Deepest Space,” a perverse cartoon that starts slowly and ends up both amusing and stimulating. Maher is wonderful as a deformed detective, and Dorchen is restrained enough to make it work.

Oobleck ends the show with Dorchen’s “The Imp of the Perverse,” an extravaganza of sorts that manages to drown all its more salient political and philosophical points in a barrage of gross-me-out stunts. If you have a weak stomach, don’t stay for this one.

Oobleck (the name, by the way, comes from Dr. Seuss–it means slimy green stuff) returns to Cabaret Voltaire in June with David Isaacson’s Three Who Dared, a Play on the Movies. There’s no question of the talent and dedication here. But can they show any grace and vulnerability? Emotion shouldn’t require an embarrassed guffaw after each peek.