Bryn Magnus remembers the time he tried to sneak from movie to movie at a multiplex. The ushers caught him red-handed, but he bravely refused to concede anything. Even though he could hardly believe it himself, he insisted that he’d thought admittance to one show entitled him to see them all.
Unfortunately, the ushers didn’t go for it. In a perfect world they would have appreciated the interplay of shame, terror, and bravado in his performance–the drama of excess emotion applied to a trivial situation, the pathos of an intelligent adult attempting to believe his own dumb-ass story.
Instead, they just threw him out.
Now Magnus has created the perfect world he couldn’t find at the multiplex. In a new work called Dictator Light the writer, director, and actor reconstitutes his ugly experience into a narcissistic fantasy–one that not only turns out better, but exposes the connection between his performance for the ushers and the ones taking place on all those multiplex screens.
Even Magnus himself has been perfected in the piece. His character, Chad Chadness, feels none of the ethical conflicts that compromised Magnus’s defense. Just the opposite: Chad possesses what Magnus considers true star quality–an amorality that allows him to “throw over his own personality and stick to a lie to the very end.” Chad is mesmerized by the white light of the projector, so in love with it he can’t really remember who he is. He has only to flash his movie-lit, believing eyes at the ushers to win them over. Rather than throw him out, they start plotting his rise to Hollywood stardom.
And sure enough a star is what he becomes–apparently without having to fuss much about actual creative output. Magnus says Dictator Light is the “absurd, surreal history of a star that completely bypasses his work.”
More than Hollywood-style wish fulfillment, however, Dictator Light also means to explore the movies themselves. Magnus started with the idea that most films fit into three basic genres: romance, horror, and action. He then broke down each genre into a series of decontextualized images and gestures. The results were to be reconfigured into three scenarios and acted out by Magnus and his cast of four “ushers” (David Isaacson, Paul Tamney, Amy Warren, and Dana Wise). As things actually evolved, however, the scenarios were replaced by “soundscapes” created by composer Michael Zerang. With the ushers vocalizing Zerang’s soundscapes behind Magnus’s Chad, Dictator Light should come off as a kind of extended aria.
If all this sounds eccentric, then it’s working. In a long string of collaborations with groups like the Curious Theatre Branch and Jellyeye Drum Theater, Magnus has established himself as an artist who never met a non sequitur he didn’t like or couldn’t tease into something wonderfully strange. His language tumbles in and out of fantasy, reverie, dream–the jazz of thought. Much of the exhilaration of watching his work, failures as well as successes, derives from the sense that anything could happen.
The 40-minute Dictator Light will be presented this weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, paired each day with a different selection from the MCA’s “Something for Nothing” film series. Appropriately, each of the companion films is a meditation on Hollywood decadence and moral distortion. On Thursday, December 4, the live performance at 8 will be followed by the 1952 Bette Davis vehicle The Star. On Friday the show begins at 9 and the film will be Robert Aldrich’s overwrought 1955 work, The Big Knife. On Saturday at 8 it will be followed by the Coen brothers’ 1991 movie, Barton Fink. And finally, on Sunday at 3 you can see the performance in tandem with Robert Altman’s 1992 black comedy, The Player. Oddly for a series titled “Something for Nothing,” there’s a general admission price of $12, which will get you into both Dictator Light and the movie. Call 312-397-4010. –Tony Adler
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bryn Magnus photo by J.B. Spector.