at the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University

December 1

During the intermission at Imago’s performance at Northwestern, a ten-year-old girl came to talk to the grandfatherly man sitting next to me. She wanted to know how he had changed pennies into quarters in the lobby before the show. The man started to do magic tricks again: making quarters disappear and reappear, pulling quarters from behind the girl’s ear, sneezing quarters. He pulled a red handkerchief from the breast pocket of his coat, put knots into it, and untied them with a flick of the wrist. The other members of the audience around him were as spellbound as I. Only the girl seemed to take what he was doing for granted.

Imago is just as magical. The four members of the company use masks and costumes to create illusions. Caterpillars, frogs, geckos, and nameless orbs inhabit the stage. Though Disney-style cuteness threatens at times, the company has such strong technical foundations that it creates real magic. As the grandfatherly man next to me said, it was “Pilobolus meets Mummenschanz meets Clown College.”

This man was a professor emeritus of theater at Northwestern University, Bob Schneiderman, who knows all about illusion and magic. The ten- year-old girl was the granddaughter of a colleague. Her aplomb while watching the tricks was the natural reaction of a child raised in the theater. Good magic is grounded in skill and experience.

One of the founders of Imago, Carol Uselman, was trained as a dancer and danced ballet in the northwest. In The Cretin she wears a mask on the back of her head, creating the illusion that her back is her front, an illusion enhanced by her dance training. Watching her was like looking at a gestalt drawing where the space between two figures suddenly becomes a picture itself: one could choose to see the illusion at one moment and the reality at another. Somehow that tension between illusion and fact, and Uselman’s transparent demonstration of the gap between them, created both laughter and magic.

A later solo, Laravabatic, brings a caterpillar to life. Because the dancer wears the caterpillar mask on his rear end, the larva’s arms are the dancer’s legs. But where The Cretin makes its illusion evident to the audience, Laravabatic hides its illusion. So when the caterpillar stands on its “hands” (the dancer’s feet), the audience applauds the virtuoso handstand.

A significant part of Imago’s illusions come from the masks created by Jerry Mouawad, the group’s other founder. “Imago,” according to my dictionary, can mean “an idealized mental image of another person or the self,” and Mouawad’s masks can be seen as images purified by being taken to extremes. In Frankenstein, Mouawad’s Dr. Frankenstein mask looks like a mad scientist, with Albert Einstein’s wild hair. The mask for the Frankenstein monster has the same hair, but combed and controlled. The monster has a horrid but kindly face–how your grandfather might have looked to you when you were four years old. The mask’s force creates its own story, in which the monster becomes a painter who’s more human than his creator.

The cleverest mask, for Cowboy, is a square box with the cartoon face of a cowpoke painted on it. The face is on a scroll, and when the performer turns a crank on the side of the box, the cowboy’s face scrolls out of view and is replaced by a winding road. The scroll winds down to tell the whole story, which includes a thunderstorm, a mirage in the desert, and drinking in a saloon. (The scroll is by George Smith, the cartoonist who draws The Smith Family.) A postmodern deconstructivist literary critic would have appreciated the concept that the mask was the story.

Uselman and Mouawad seem to be historically aware in other ways as well. Bauhaus is an updating of Oskar Schlemmer’s famous pole dances, originally shown at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. The stage is dark except for black-light footlights. Because the two dancers are dressed completely in black, they’re virtually invisible. Attached to the dancers’ bodies are 15 or so poles each, covered with luminescent paint. All the audience can see are the suspended poles, which move in mysterious patterns as the dancers move. The patterns have a familiar, even human quality. To give an abstract form humanity expresses the Bauhaus aesthetic and ethic well.

Bauhaus gives us two pole dancers, instead of Schlemmer’s one, and adds the lighting effects to keep our interest. When the audience begins to tire of the pole dance, Bauhaus continues with a set of hoops knitted together in a way that reminded me of a Slinky. Schlemmer also performed hoop dances, which must have been the inspiration for this; but by making the hoops into a Slinky, Imago has made a foreign and slightly stuffy image into an American one. The performers’ play with the Slinky provides some of the most mesmerizing sections of Bauhaus.

Another aspect of Imago’s work that gives it strength is its clowning. Uselman was trained as a clown by Jacques Lecoq in his Parisian school, while Mouawad was trained in a school in Portland, Oregon, that uses Lecoq’s methods and a clown’s physical dexterity and willingness to do anything are satirized in Sloth Circus. Its three lazy circus performers won’t even put out enough energy to come onstage at the right time. But despite their sloth the performers manage to demonstrate considerable physical dexterity, stacking cardboard boxes 20 feet high until they reach above the proscenium arch. Like a child’s block, each box has a letter, and together the boxes spell out a word; part of the pleasure lies in trying to figure out what the word will be.

Clowns try to please. When something doesn’t work, they try something else. When something works well, they do it again and again. Many of the figures created by Imago come right to the edge of the stage and threaten to topple over it–sometimes the creatures do go over the edge and into the audience. In the last piece, Orbs, a big ball plunged into the audience and came back with a woman’s shoe. The orb threw the shoe back into the audience, but someone in the audience threw it back onstage. More than any others, those moments of play between creatures and audience reminded me of circus clowns.

Note the many children’s toys and images throughout the evening: a Slinky, blocks, a Disney-like caterpillar, Frankenstein. These icons almost define an American child’s life. For illusion to be successful, the audience must be willing to become children again–to be ten years old, when you know that pennies don’t change magically into quarters but some grandfatherly figure keeps doing it anyway.