Facts and Figures

Penlight Theater

at the Lunar Cabaret

The Lucky Ones

Curious Theatre Branch

at the Lunar Cabaret

In the Wreckage

Hysteria Productions

at the Lunar Cabaret

By Nick Green

No matter how diverse its performers or how drastic its shifts in lineup from year to year, the Rhinoceros Theater Festival has maintained its mission: creating a safe, pressure-free environment for the development of new works and voices. An egalitarian affair–participating companies are given the same amount of money and access to resources–the festival not surprisingly fosters a minimalist aesthetic. What is surprising–and what has made the Rhino increasingly valuable in the decade since its inception–is how often the plays echo one another, though of course whenever you gather a bunch of kindred spirits under one roof, common themes are bound to emerge. If there’s an informal concept underlying this year’s fest, it might be the beauty of the spoken word–of special concern in Eric Ziegenhagen’s new Facts and Figures, which relies almost entirely on verbal performance to establish itself.

Sometimes it’s the most modest innovations that make the biggest statements. In some ways Ziegenhagen’s naturalistic script–a series of long-distance conversations between two lovers–doesn’t offer many surprises. He maps out his characters’ personality quirks in the play’s first 15 minutes, and in the next hour or so they don’t change much. Nor does it take a psychic to predict the play’s outcome–given the various roadblocks Ziegenhagen sets up, the conclusion seems almost inevitable.

But for this playwright the ends aren’t nearly as important as the means: ultimately it’s Ziegenhagen’s direction of his script that makes Facts and Figures stand out. He experimented with sensory-deprivation theater a little more than a year ago with his staging of Beau O’Reilly’s The House on the Lake by the Woods Near the Ocean, placing the speaking members of the cast behind the audience. He achieves a similar effect here with a minimalist lighting design: aside from four dim lights overhead and an equally faint table lamp in one corner, the stage is dark.

It’s a simple but powerful choice: short of having his actors phone in their performances, Ziegenhagen could not have come closer to staging actual phone conversations. Though the actors remain visible, their faces are usually cloaked in darkness, so trying to read their expressions is an exercise in futility. And as in The House on the Lake, Ziegenhagen has pared stage business to its barest essentials; the only physical aspects of the performances are simple gestures and nervous pacing. In effect Ziegenhagen forces the audience to treat his characters like a pair of disembodied voices, the lovers so estranged from each other that telephone lines are their only connection.

Ziegenhagen’s dialogue is so naturalistic, so firmly rooted in reality, that it’s painful to listen as his characters use words to hack away at each other, reopening the wounds from their last conversation. In the hands of a less accomplished pair of actors, the tightly wound Facts and Figures might have unraveled into another tedious exercise in one-dimensional performance. But part of what makes the script so convincing is the remarkable chemistry between John Roberts and Anne Fogarty. Roberts as the intermittently employed boyfriend manages to add a fresh perspective on twentysomething apathy. And Fogarty brings an air of humanity to his eminently more successful girlfriend, an otherwise soulless management consultant.

The two hold most of their phone conversations seated at the same table, but no suspension of disbelief is required: the mile-long gaps and pauses in their exchanges create a greater sense of separation than any physical distance could.

Also premiering last weekend at the Rhinoceros were works written by two multitalented performers known mainly as monologuists. Of the two, Jenny Magnus’s The Lucky Ones shows the most promise–but Magnus is also a more seasoned playwright, a staple of the Chicago theater scene ever since she cofounded the Curious Theatre Branch, the festival’s current host, with Beau O’Reilly more than ten years ago.

Like many of her fellow Curious ensemble members, Magnus clearly relishes the opportunity to have a hand in all aspects of a production, serving here both as playwright and, with Hallie Gordon, as director. And though The Lucky Ones–which according to a fest press release concerns “the end of things, and what we get when we get there”–is a play for two men, she also makes her presence felt by singing offstage. Still, the burden of this brisk 45-minute dialogue falls squarely on its actors, Beau O’Reilly and Paul Leisen.

Program notes hint that Magnus’s play is a sort of love letter to her father and his now contemplative approach to life; this much is conveyed in the carefully crafted performances. But the script poses a fair number of perplexing questions, and answers too many of them with more questions. Magnus’s previous works have featured elliptical dialogue and Beckett-like wordplay, but this piece is missing some of the grand peaks and valleys of earlier efforts. The Lucky Ones clearly has a sense of purpose–it’s just not entirely clear what it is.

Like Magnus, Matthew Wilson is no stranger to performance: he was a member of the now defunct Thunder Road Ensemble and currently performs an original monologue every Friday night on WZRD. But In the Wreckage is his first attempt at playwriting, and it shows: Wilson has grown so skilled and comfortable as a monologuist that he rarely strays far from that form.

In fact, of the three monologues and two short one-acts that make up this 70-minute production, only one one-act–involving the victim of a horrifying car crash and a sage onlooker–includes any genuine-sounding dialogue. Which is too bad, since Wilson does an excellent job of establishing common themes among the five individual components of this production. And the cast–which includes former Thunder Road compatriots Amy Eaton and Deborah King–does a solid job of bringing to life Wilson’s tales about the desperation of everyday existence, especially John Ferrick as both the crash victim and a jilted boyfriend. But despite their best efforts, In the Wreckage falls too often into one-sidedness. As a monologuist, Wilson has proved himself a writer of great depth and insight; as a playwright, though, he still has a few lessons to learn.

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