Remains Theatre

With an across-the-board $10 ticket price, first-come-first-served seating in lounge chairs and sofa sections, an active bar in the lobby, and live, original preshow music by a tight and talented jazz-rock band, Remains Theatre is making no bones about wanting to attract a younger, looser crowd than is usually targeted by Chicago’s better-known theaters. With its first-ever permanent home in the space originally designed for the now-defunct Willow Street Carnival troupe, Remains is aggressively going after audiences more often found in movie theaters and music clubs–venues that specialize in fairly casual forms of entertainment.

But if the style is casual, the substance is definitely not. “Changing Nightly” is a package of three one-acts, organized into two evenings, which are offered in rotating repertory by an ensemble of Remains members and guest artists. All the plays are full of densely structured language that expresses complex, elusive, and ambiguous ideas. Not all of it works, but even the parts that fail fail honorably and provocatively in pursuit of challenging goals.

The three plays are all about speech and its relation to thought and emotion. Stanley Elkin’s novella The Making of Ashenden is performed in a story-theater adaptation, with the author’s prose largely preserved in the hero’s first-person narrative. Denis Diderot’s philosophical dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, adapted by Andrei Belgrader and Shelley Berc, is delivered pretty much as it was written in the 18th century: one man asking questions, another responding. David Greenspan’s Jack, the only script here that was originally conceived as a play, features three women talking–to each other, at each other–about a dead friend; juxtaposed with their conversation is a long monologue by the man they’re speaking of. Ashenden constitutes one evening’s entertainment; Rameau and Jack are combined to make the second.

Heightening the reliance of these plays on language is a minimalist production aesthetic shared by the three directors–one presumably dictated in significant part by Remains’ interest in keeping prices and budget down. The plays are performed on a mostly bare stage, with only very few set pieces (by designer Steve Pickering), carefully chosen and created costumes (by Frances Maggio), and extremely subtle lighting (by Kevin Snow) to accent the stories and settings.

Under these circumstances, “Changing Nightly” depends heavily on its cast for its effect. The choice of actors becomes especially crucial because Remains’ marketing strategy involves selling the whole repertory, not just one show. For this idea to work, these must be actors whom, having seen them once, you want to see again. And they must be actors who make the show something to talk about.

The Making of Ashenden is certainly going to be talked about. At once a satire on upper-crust WASP taste and a strangely moving paean to the civilized man’s search for emotional experience, it’s elegant, lyrical, and unblushingly sexually explicit. In less accomplished mouths, its elegance would sound phony, its lyricism soppy, and its profanity offensive. Here, though falling short of the original story’s imaginative power, it’s a very stylish piece of comedy, thanks mainly to the performance of Bruce Norris in the title role.

Brewster Ashenden, the hero and primary narrator, is by his own assessment “one of the three or four dozen truly civilized men in the world.” He’s also filthy rich, the heir to several fortunes. “I come of good stock,” he says –referring to his portfolio rather than his genetic makeup–“real estate, mineral water, oxygen, matchbooks: earth, water, air and fire.” The son of the man who copyrighted the phrase “close cover before striking,” Ashenden is a man both of and above the people (he disdains Swiss banks, for instance, because they don’t give premium gifts to new depositors). The tension between his elegantly turned phrases (“my mouthful of silver spoon and lapful of luxury”) and the commonness, even banality, of thought they reflect is bizarrely familiar in the age of George Bush and his ilk, though Elkin’s novella was published in 1973. When Ashenden proclaims, “I maintain a fund which I use for the abortions of girls other men have gotten into trouble; if the young lady prefers, I have a heart-to-heart with the young man,” one can’t help but hear echoes of David Souter’s testimony about his personal experience with dormitory abortion counseling.

Like Souter, Ashenden is among the most eligible of bachelors. When he decides it’s time to do his duty and procreate heirs, he goes in search of a perfect, pure woman, despite his own promiscuous past (“It’s different for a man”). His friend Buffy Surface refers him to one Jane Loes Lipton, a sort of cross between Eleanor Roosevelt and Baby Jane Holzer and about as perfect a woman as Ashenden could hope to find. But he’s startled to discover that his inamorata has high standards similar to his own–she won’t marry him if he’s not a virgin. And since he’s not a virgin, he must find a way to become one once again.

By the time he succeeds in reclaiming his innocence, it’s not giving away too much to say, Ashenden finds he no longer cares about Jane or all the constipated civilization that she represents. The avenue to this radical self-discovery is an encounter with a bear that happens to reside in a private zoo on a friend’s estate–a primal, and explicitly sexual, encounter that leads Ashenden into his partner’s, and his own, animal interior.

In director-adapter Larry Sloan’s story-theater rendition of the tale, Bruce Norris as Ashenden does most of the talking; his task is to make the audience believe in the character even as he invites us to relish Elkin’s audaciously overrefined writing. A comic actor of physical grace and dramatic precision, Norris delivers the highly mannered prose with artful flair, finding the sense in his character’s absurd, self-justifying logic. It’s awfully funny, but Norris is so good, and so predominant, that the other characters become little more than figures in his routines. Ashenden visiting his parents’ twin deathbeds, Ashenden lounging in the rider’s seat of a friend’s convertible (cleverly evoked by a fan blowing out of a steering-wheel set piece), Ashenden envisioning a shadowy Jane shooting arrows like the goddess Diana, Ashenden wooing his lady in a mysterious candlelighted tableau straight out of La dolce vita–these are vivid sequences that amuse and intrigue but never grip us. The loss is not great in the early sections; but in the climactic scene with the bear, the audience must be emotionally involved or the action is simply ludicrous. Despite Norris’s marvelous expressions as Ashenden’s reaction changes from revulsion to excitement to abandon, the scene comes across as just shameless slapstick as director Sloan, rather than trying to stylize the scene through the use of shadow or ritual, gives us straight-ahead simulated sex, with a seminude Norris and athletic actress Louise Freistadt in a big, hairy bear costume.

Perhaps it’s the lack of a similar attempt at verisimilitude that makes Mary Zimmerman’s staging of Jack so beautiful and effective. Very short and very potent, the play features three actresses clad in black and sitting at lecterns, in pure reader’s-theater style. Downstage of them, gradually revealed in an achingly slow light fade-up, is a man, also sitting. He is Jack, a friend of the three women; he recently died after a long bout with AIDS.

In sparse, overlapping, agitated fragments, the women speak of their lost friend. The influence of Gertrude Stein is clear: “And and and Jack was–” “There was Jack–” “There was–” “Jack was there,” goes one set of lines. But Zimmerman, with her gifted trio of actresses –Amy Morton, Glenda Starr Kelley, and Martha Lavey–find the elusive currents of feeling in Greenspan’s tense, terse poetry. Against their mercurially, neurotically shifting rhythms and dynamics, Tom Aulino’s gentle, wistful, soft-spoken Jack–apparently seen in the act of videotaping a living will before his early death–is heartbreakingly real, simple, and accessible.

In such company, Neel Keller’s staging of Rameau’s Nephew is exceptionally disappointing. A conversation between a slightly stuffy pedant (a satiric self-portrait by Diderot) and a rascally young man, Rameau’s Nephew has in common with The Making of Ashenden the theme of a man’s innate innocence corrupted by false values. “I,” as the Diderot character is called, is fascinated by “He,” the mediocre nephew of the brilliant musical composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau; I seeks to make He admit that despite his scurrilous behavior He is a good man. But He will have none of it; by his own definition, He’s a “lazy, servile, and crooked” fellow whose flaws, He insists, are in his nature, not his breeding. The more I tries to coax goodness out of He, the worse He gets, until He blithely recounts a story of such dehumanized depravity that even I gives up hope.

Again, it’s all words; but in Kevin Hurley’s crucial performance as He, the words come to nothing. Diderot’s rebel without a cause comes off here as a lightweight nerd; Hurley radiates none of the clownish humor, impudent sexual charm, or gut-level need that would make He a figure worth considering. The issues I and He discuss (as highlighted by contemporary playwrights Belgrader and Berc) are if anything more pertinent now than they were 200 years ago: inadequate education, drugs, casual crime, and the pervasive apathy that guarantees continued deterioration of the social contract. But Hurley’s too bland to make us care about He, much less about what He represents. Norris, in the straight-man role of I, does all he can to stimulate the audience’s interest by simulating his own, but it comes to naught.

So: one home run, one base hit, and one strikeout. Not bad under any circumstances; pretty damn good, considering the high standards Remains has set for itself.

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