Come Like Shadows…
at Chopin Theatre
By Jack Helbig
Dexter Bullard is a contrarian. While almost everyone else in Chicago has been busy coddling viewers with safer and safer shows–revivals of the classics, productions by the same old playwrights (Shepard, Albee, McNally, Shanley), and toothless new plays that are a lot like the old ones–Bullard and his physical theater company, Plasticene, have been putting together relentlessly original, aggressively nonlinear pieces. Come Like Shadows… is the latest from this four-year-old troupe, a roughly hour-long work for seven performers that defies description: it tells no story, develops no characters, and contains no long dialogues (the only monologue is blurted out in a half-incoherent babble). Bullard’s actors don’t dance, nor do they sing.
They do, however, move. Making theatrical entrances in full costume, they vigorously interact with one another and with simple props: scrims, batons, chairs, chains, candles. In one sequence Guy Van Swearingen and Sharon Gopfert play a very abstract territorial game with two armchairs that starts out funny, turns rather dark and oppressive, then lightens again. He drapes one leg over an arm of his chair, she drapes two legs over the arm of hers; while he stands and pretends to ignore his chair, she makes a lunge for it–and gets it. But in the meantime he’s made an end run around her and taken her seat. Later in the piece, in what seems a continuation of the game, Van Swearingen grabs the arms of a chair as it’s being lifted upside down into the flies and somersaults into the seat, “sitting” nonchalantly as the chair rises higher and higher. Has his character’s world been turned upside down? Or does the feat demonstrate his mastery of an extraordinary situation?
Sections of Come Like Shadows… are very dancelike, in the sense that Goat Island’s work is dancelike: the performers have taken on certain physical tasks and carry them out with the utmost conviction, crossing the stage in carefully choreographed if idiosyncratic patterns. In one sequence they crawl across the stage with long chains attached to their legs, and in another they cross in twosomes hitting each other with small batons.
Other parts of the show feel like fragments of some forgotten classic–or several half-forgotten dramas entwined in memory. At one point the performers enter one by one in Victorian costumes, the men in coats, vests, and big scarflike cravats, the women in absurdly large, ruffly dresses–one woman is even dressed onstage, beginning with a corset. Once introduced, these characters almost create a narrative: when a stuffy-looking white man stands over an African-American woman, it might be a comment on colonialism or race relations.
The funny thing about Plasticene’s work is that the longer you’re able to stave off questions about what it means, the more you’ll enjoy it. In a sense the whole show is a tease–but there’s nothing wrong with that. The worst plays I’ve seen have failed precisely because the actors or director or playwright told us too much. Most of what’s on television is worse, hitting us over the head with small-minded messages: be nice; don’t smoke; eat right; buy, buy, buy.
Bullard and Plasticene go to the opposite extreme in Come Like Shadows…, which they created together under Bullard’s direction: they put as much effort into keeping interpretation at arm’s length as advertisers do into making sure you yearn for their product by the end of a 30-second spot. In that sense the piece resembles not only Goat Island’s work but the strikingly visual performances Michael Kalmes Meyers used to present at MoMing Dance & Arts Center in the 80s. Eventually such works all come together, maybe near the end–as Meyers’s did–or maybe weeks later, which happened to me once after a Goat Island show while I was walking down the street thinking about something else. And if the viewer never experiences the blinding satori that brings order out of chaos, at least the fragments can be savored.
Bullard comes by his avant-garde approach honestly. He is after all an MFA graduate of the School of the Art Institute’s performance art program, where both Meyers and various Goat Island members have taught. But what makes Bullard’s work (and by extension Plasticene’s) even richer and more surprising is his familiarity with mainstream forms, partly the result of a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, partly the result of his subsequent experiences. Name a style of theater and Bullard has done it: theater of the absurd, revenge tragedy, 18th-century French farce, head-banging 20th-century British tragicomedy. He even worked for three years directing Second City’s touring shows. If you told me Bullard moonlighted as a dancer in Fosse, I’d buy it.
But in Come Like Shadows… Bullard displays his full range as a director, including sections that work as pure comedy and others at such a high emotional pitch they might have come from a tragedy. In many respects this show seems more a meditation on the mechanics of making theater and on the relationship between performer and audience than it is an exploration of power struggles. The set–a series of scrims–underscores not only the fact that we’re watching something on a stage but that we’re seeing only what Plasticene wants us to see. Similarly, the extreme fragmentation of the piece and the performers’ close attention to the rituals of entrances and exits emphasize the artificiality and emphemerality of the art.
Bullard further elaborates on his theatrical theme by filling his ensemble with actors from very different sectors of Chicago’s sprawling non-Equity scene. Van Swearingen is a founding member of A Red Orchid Theatre, a company known for its intensely naturalistic acting. Gopfert has worked with the Curious Theatre Branch, Prop, Lookingglass, and Redmoon–all companies that eschew mere realistic playmaking. Mark Comiskey too is best known for his work with Curious Theatre. This diversity enriches our experience: the ensemble is equally convincing in the piece’s abstract and naturalistic sequences, performing like some handpicked elite army and displaying a confidence and commitment that draws us in even when what they’re doing is obscure.
Early in the show the actors step onto a nearly black stage, separated from the audience by a series of translucent scrims, to perform a beautifully choreographed sequence with votive candles. One candle rises, the rest follow; one candle falls, and the rest follow. All the candles drop to the floor, then all rise mysteriously. It’s a beautiful image that acts as a prologue of sorts, introducing the theme of theatricality and–when the candles are extinguished–the idea that everything in the theater is as insubstantial as a shadow on a wall.