Pig in a Poke Theatre

at Blue Rider Theatre

John Walch’s Have You Seen Toto? is a sort of three-ring comedy revue. In the center ring is an assortment of running gags, ambiguous metaphors, surreal sketches, and the occasional satire, all overseen by a dominatrix narrator (played by the serene Merce Burke) who dispenses irrelevant quotations like fortune cookies. Real cookies are whipped up from scratch in a kitchen at stage right–constituting a low-key sideshow and generally making the theater smell wonderful. The third ring is the audience, which is invaded during preshow by actor/vendors hawking chewing gum and condoms and trying to engage cringing patrons in witless impromptu. Then, as the show begins, the house is further infiltrated by actors posing as audience members, including two middle-class couples and a mother with a fake baby.

Yes, but does the show have anything to do with the Wizard of Oz? Hardly.

What you’ll find here, if not Toto, is a playful, as opposed to academic, manipulation of the much-agonized-over relationship between performers and audience. The intrusive preshow culminates when the audience is asked to stand and sing the national anthem. Most stood. Fewer sang. Several seemed to be silently praying for intermission. But once brought to this point of dreadful anticipation and tension, the queasy role of audience was signed over to the aforementioned impostors, leaving the real ticket holders suddenly stranded, almost extraneous, a secondary audience. It was something like undergoing chiropractic–and the abrupt absolution of responsibility felt liberating.

Not that I was so exhilarated that I ran out and torched a Korean convenience market. The show in the center ring is as uneven as any comedy revue. Some war-horses are featured, such as the inevitable TV satire–though I thought the public-service announcement for National Condom Week was very clever. Remember, “Sex is cleaner with a packaged wiener.” The running gag about the search for Toto is less successful, but it does allow De Wargo (as Dorothy) to sing a most bubbly and vomitously sweet little song. And there’s a good deal of flirtation with the theatrical -isms. Surrealism: Ten million Americans own fish tanks and use them like drugs. Plagiarism: Ten ways to borrow a wheelbarrow–an idea lifted from Rostand’s Cyrano, but not as well done, and without the sword fight. Postmodernism: Lots of actors running around in the dark–“It’s a time filler,” says audience member Harry (damn well played by Kevin T. McCarthy).

But just because this cast knows its way around a few -isms doesn’t mean that they’re going to get smug with you or flog you to death with the avant-garde. At worst, there’s a hint of cockiness in the way that Pig in a Poke taunts the audience to look for deeper meaning in what’s either deliberately obscure or nonsense for the hell of it. Undergraduate perhaps, but not pedantic. They just want to dick around with you on a couple of levels.

Refreshingly, these levels will collide and interact, even after you leave the theater. If you’ve ever seen Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? you may have found you distrusted subtitles in foreign movies for some time afterward. Likewise, after walking out of Have You Seen Toto? I saw, not Toto, but somebody’s dog peeing on the cornerstone of a church. And the very next minute I saw the play-within-a-play audience, in their nice evening clothes, circling back to the stage door, looking every bit as out of place in the overflowing-Dumpster mall of South Halsted as they had inside the theater. What was real and what was theater had become suspiciously confused.