You Are Not Here

at the Neo-Futurarium, through February 27

Full Moon Vaudeville

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, January 30

By Carol Burbank

Group shows are notoriously difficult. It’s not just a matter of choosing a theme, choreographing breaks and scene changes, and making sure everyone has the same aesthetic. It’s also a matter of creating a framework that allows different performers to claim the limelight yet gives the evening some kind of unity.

The aesthetics of the producers and curators can limit or illuminate a group show–a fact made clear by “Full Moon Vaudeville” at the Museum of Contemporary Art and “You Are Not Here” at the Neo-Futurarium. The Neo-Futurists have an ironic but blunt relationship with the audience, and their stage personae are often autobiographical; the evenings they curate tend to feel intimate and perversely confessional, inhabiting that sardonic Neo-Futurist gray area between fiction and reality. The Lunar Cabaret’s Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus, who curated “Full Moon Vaudeville,” like to hit a theme and riff on it, giving artists the freedom to experiment. Both groups favor a playful, improvisational approach, but Lunar Cabaret’s “Full Moon Vaudeville” devolved into a sloppy, poorly conceived hodgepodge. “You Are Not Here” is more collaborative and more shrewd: the solo performers strategically break up and weave together their monologues, and their odd juxtapositions of style and theme create both a challenge and a feeling of camaraderie.

Four Neo-Futurist women set out to map personal and cultural transformations in “You Are Not Here.” The interwoven stories of Anita Loomis, Diana Slickman, Stephanie Shaw, and Rachel Claff take us on an inspiring and convoluted journey, as tales of fire, falling, failing, and fantasy blend together with the logic of dreams, leaving haunting afterimages. Each performer claims a corner of the stage in the tiny theater and remains there throughout the evening, telling her story with casual finesse–the style that makes Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind a Chicago original. Their personal, intricate, and often cryptic tales together take on a strange poetic intensity; the evening is a collage of striking images, whimsical confessions, and brutal vignettes despite uneven moments.

The most disturbing performance is A Proper Dragon, Shaw’s monologue about youthful dreams, dragons, and childbirth. For years Shaw’s writing has been dominated by stories of her attempts to get pregnant, her pregnancies, and her experiences as a mother. With each performance about childbirth, she seems to grow more confident and more ruthless. She has her wry, conflicted persona down now, offering up her body, bulging with twins, and overwrought prose poetry here in a visceral feminist narrative. As always, her obvious pride in bearing children is mixed with dread. This time she reads a scene from her unfinished novel: a dragon infant consumes its bloody mother, creating a dragon mother who haunts the evening with the ultimate sacrifice–her own life. Shaw is a monster of great intelligence, articulating the terrors and delights of motherhood with a compelling undertone of rueful disgust.

In addition to her usual ornate phrases and feminist retellings of fairy tales, Shaw offers a tribute to sword-and-sorcery novels and confesses her fear that the twins she’s carrying may have Down’s syndrome. And though she spends most of her performance tucked into a cozy-looking double bed center stage, per her doctor’s order, the piece is remarkably physical. She enters carrying a huge broadsword, assaulting invisible enemies accompanied by Enya’s generic Celtic anthems, stabbing at the air with brazen, ironic clumsiness. Then she sinks gratefully into bed, briefly exposing her cruelly stretched body when she changes into a Victorian-style nightgown and announcing that her “belly is a hollowed-out boulder full of soft bone and heavy syrup.” The life inside her seems a kind of death, though she’s obviously thrilled to be giving birth.

The conflict in Shaw’s story is the most intense of the four, but each performance has its own ambivalence. Loomis takes the audience on a restless, seemingly autobiographical travelogue, searching for “ordinary dreams without terror.” Travel F(r)ictions opens with a videotaped journey down a green coast, a blurred, soothing landscape where we pause occasionally to look at a house or to read signs at monuments or museums: “Press buttons to find out what percentage of materials survive.” The video continues as she begins her monologue, delivered in a calm, rhythmic tone in her usual androgynous clown persona. Dressed in a business suit with a minimalist ring of red lipstick at the tip of her nose, she carries us along with her on remembered journeys, passing old lovers, disappointing cities, and distant hopes that seem to be leading her toward some idea of home.

Loomis’s work combines intellectual distance with a sometimes unexpected confessional intimacy. Her ritualistic singsong recalls a lecture, yet her stories are almost melodramatic in their loneliness, as she spins together closeted lovers, casual sex, and dying relatives. It doesn’t really matter where ironic fantasy ends and life begins in this piece, because Travel F(r)ictions feels like a scientific documentary in which Loomis marks her travels on her body as well as on maps, delivering fragmented memories–stops on the road that once scarred or tickled. It’s strange but often fascinating to watch her explore the personal “f(r)ictions” of being a perpetual traveler, unattached but involved in the worlds she passes through.

Slickman’s Falling is surprising in its brilliant plainness. A fabulous storyteller whose straightforward language is a refreshing contrast to the more poetic talk of her collaborators, she explores falling down, a simple concept that turns out to be complicated and funny. Her only prop is a large box with words on different sides naming scenes: velocity, suspended, pitch, vertigo. She practices stage falls, imagines the seduction of cliffs, and remembers falls she’s witnessed or experienced, telling stories that capture the moment between falling and flight, falling and standing, falling and jumping. Her performance is direct but understated, in itself a beautiful balancing act between chatting with the audience and creating a whimsical persona who convinces us to fall into her stories’ net.

Finally, Claff in Why2K offers a new take on Y2K fears, imagining an apocalypse in which people catch fire and burn one another up with the slightest touch. Dressed in a torn, charred remnant of some red prom gown or bridesmaid’s dress and propping herself up on a precarious pile of chairs, Claff declares herself “a prophet, a liar,” a sort of Cassandra for the 90s; Y2K is just a jumping-off point. Her horror-show imagery–people burning on the el with an excruciating spiritual fire, victims choking on their own unspoken stories–overlaps with a personal story about holding a feverish boyfriend as he burns in his sleep. It’s a surreal, creepy piece; it’s also a little self-indulgent. And Claff waves her battered red gloves with such confidence it’s hard to believe she really fears the coming apocalypse, despite her confession that she’s worried it will come true only because some madmen think it should.

Perhaps the emotional impact of Claff’s prophecy is blunted by the way the group’s stories overlap. Still, I liked this approach overall, because it shows a community of storytellers each with her own brand of Neo-Futurist ironic self-exposure. Breaking each monologue into several stories mutes the excesses of each piece, building a different kind of energy. As each woman speaks, the others watch quietly, an intimate audience of friends. The lights shift, another performer takes over. Just as we’ve learned one rhythm, we move into another: falling, traveling, burning, sparring. The performers’ collaboration is as clear as their individual projects: Slickman’s straightforwardness makes Claff’s intensity more interesting; Loomis’s lesbian travelogue places Shaw’s heterosexual anxieties in a wider universe. Everything has that somehow practiced Neo-Futurist intimacy. The actors laugh at each other’s jokes and cue missed lines, creating a through line made up of their own playful, risky community.

I wish the collaborators in “Full Moon Vaudeville” had been as careful in their conception as the Neo-Futurists. Last Saturday, under a moon that looked like spring in the winter sky, Bryn and Jenny Magnus, Beau O’Reilly, and their families and friends created a pallid postmodern variety show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Vaudeville was originally unapologetically populist: ethnic jokes, freak shows, acrobats, and sentimental tunesters kept the audience entertained until the headliners appeared. But here there were no headliners to reward the audience’s patience, just a series of underrehearsed acts that took too long to set up and break down.

To be fair, there were a few vaudeville-esque events, notably geography wizard Ned Folkerth and the enthusiastically cheesy Clothes Sisters, who did a classic scarf dance and sang a medley of songs about girl power and clothes. But there wasn’t much finesse to back up the fun, despite the chutzpah and talent of Clothes Sisters Meg and Nia O’Reilly-Amandes and Jenny Magnus. Beau O’Reilly emceed, offering his usual mugging and meanderings but no references to the playful genre the evening claimed to celebrate; the other acts revisited the most pseudointellectual and self-indulgent traditions of performance art.

Vaudeville and lazy postmodernism are a bad mix, although there were a few glimmers of talent here. Maestro Subgum and the Whole played some intriguing songs, and Diane Izzo closed the evening with a strong set. But even the sharp-minded Cheryl Trykv delivered an aimless monologue, opting for cute and clever rather than strong and biting. Bryn Magnus and John Starrs tossed out rambling, half-assed stories from their childhoods, reading from scripts, and a few pomo dancers and clowns created little happenings that never really committed to happening.

These seasoned Chicago performers should have known better. They certainly have the talent to do better. And despite its reputation as lowbrow entertainment, vaudeville deserved a better tribute, especially at “Full Moon Vaudeville”‘s MCA debut.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): You Are Not Here still by Jim Newberry; Full Moon Vaudeville photo by Chris Dimock.