Theater Oobleck

Quite frankly, I was a little scared off by the myth of Theater Oobleck. You know, that the raw energy fairly crackles, that their intellectual genius is rivaled by none, that they’re the only true collective in Chicago, the theater with no director.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Theater Oobleck is just another company. Certainly they’re smart and funny and all those things everybody says. But they are essentially human, with strengths and weaknesses like any other theater company, a fact that’s fairly apparent in the five short plays they’re now producing, Green, Thick & Hot: Short Plays From the Oobleck Laboratory, 1989!

The five plays, written by five different people, vary widely in form, content, and merit. Although there is no unifying theme, the first three plays all focus on the inanity of technology and modern society.

Tomorrow the World, by Dave Buchen, is a relatively tedious condemnation of USA Today and the McPeople who buy into its concept. Buchen sets the play in the USA Today offices; the employees intone actual headlines. The office workers, near robots, agree with the corporate Mr. Big, Al Neuharth, that America’s feeling good and the world is just one big happy family–despite evidence to the contrary in their own lives. Although Buchen makes us aware of some truly inane headlines, he offers no new insight into the dangers of a technocratic, “don’t worry, be happy” society. Instead he just reiterates the oft-repeated evils of the Reagan presidency and its effects on our culture.

His Own Business, by Annette Jagner, features the author as a Chaplin-esque tramp who finds his true calling when he inadvertently becomes the president of a multimillion-dollar corporation. Jagner’s points about society are similar to Buchen’s, but they’re much more effectively and amusingly conveyed. Jagner’s portrayal of the bum is perfection. She captures his pathos, wisdom, and humor as he makes the most of whatever comes his way. Her supporting characters and cast are right on target, from the two executives like automatons and the extremely myopic company man to the fed up, nirvana-seeking ex-president. Jagner also puts in a (perhaps self-referential) plug for collective management. This play, with the help of the entire cast, is so good that you could almost imagine Charlie Chaplin had written it.

The last play of the first half, Technology, Terrorism, Cops, by David Isaacson, is the most absurdist and intellectual of the bunch. Almost a philosophical treatise, it throws together such characters as Martin Heidegger, Lucille Ball, and David Frost, and such subjects as the CIA, metal detectors in school, and crimes against the state. Isaacson and Barbara Thorne play most of the many characters with amazing agility. I have no idea what it all adds up to, but I certainly had a good time trying to figure it out.

The two pieces that make up the second half of the evening have absolutely nothing in common. The Ungrounding of Molly Bond, by Elliot Jackson, is a twisted, mythical tale about the James Bond household: Molly, his daughter, is grounded–she’s actually chained down–but she gets some wings from a stranger selling truth in candy form. The play has something to do with sexual and societal stereotypes, but I’m not exactly sure what. Although there are some humorous moments, The Ungrounding of Molly Bond is as confusing as it is macabre, and it seems a bit infantile next to the other works.

Excerpts From “An Evening With Eugene O’Neill” is pretty much what it says it is–a portion of a one-man show–only Oobleck-style. To say any more would ruin it for everyone. Just trust me on this one. It’s a great ending to an Oobleck evening.

The performances in Green, Thick & Hot are as varied in their quality as the material, but it really doesn’t matter. What’s exciting about Oobleck is that much-acclaimed energy. There is a fresh, honest excitement about this evening of five plays that permeates the theater. That, more than Oobleck’s intelligence, humor, anarchical structure, and formidable reputation, is what makes Green, Thick & Hot engaging.