The Dramatist Revolutionary Army was looking forward to playing the Lincoln Park West Care Center. The theater group’s latest project, War-Dice–an interactive piece designed to mimic the unpredictability of life during wartime–had been suffering from poor attendance. On August 4 a hoped-for audience of teenagers had failed to appear at the Albany Park Community Center. So the cast of eight performed for the family of Catherine Hanna, one of the actors.

But a nursing home, said host and director Jaimie-Lee Wise, “is a guaranteed crowd.”

The troupe, which was founded in 1998 by four Columbia College students, set up last weekend at the home, at 1901 N. Lincoln Park West. Their venue: the fourth-floor solarium–a library with an Encyclopaedia Britannica, a set of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and a nice view of the park. At two o’clock, staff members wheeled in a dozen elderly women.

The War-Dice set is a table laden with objects directly relating to war–military uniforms, a portrait of a soldier–as well as household objects such as broken eyeglasses, an alarm clock, and a roll of film. Before each show, the actors choose an object from the table and a story from that week’s headlines, then improvise a 20-minute play combining both. That afternoon, the object was a packet of Kleenex; the headline, “Catholic missionaries attacked in Pakistan.”

Wise strolled to the front of the room. “After the events of September 11,” he told the staring women, “we all really needed a way to respond to living in a world at war, since this was all new to us, so this is what we’ve done to respond. This answered the question ‘What next?,’ since it’s a random game. If you can accept anything can happen, then you’re at peace.”

Brandishing a sheet of paper, he announced, “On the left-hand side of the program, you’ll see a list of 24 character types. On the right-hand side, you’ll see a list of emotions. We’re going to use the character types and emotions as our dice. I need you to choose a character type or an emotion for each actor.”

An audience member told David Sergeant to portray desperation. Hanna was assigned envy. The actors improvised a scene about a missionary in Pakistan, played by Sergeant, who has to deal with locals tripping his colleagues in the street.

After five minutes, Wise halted the play. The first act was over. Now, he said, the audience would have to choose new roles for each actor. This time, the “inter-provisation,” as Wise calls it, was more difficult.

He carried the program over to a woman with a shawl across her lap. “What should we do for Scott Byrnside? Character type or emotion?” he asked her.

“I have a bus leaving at a quarter to four,” she responded.

“Well, we’ll get things moving, have you on your bus by a quarter to four. Just choose a character type for Scott.”

“I can’t see.”

“Just point at one.”

“The first one.”

“OK, jock.”

Before the final act, Wise bent before a smiling old woman and asked her to pick a character type for Dominique Gallo, who was playing a pious nun. The woman whispered a choice that was not on the list.

“OK,” Wise announced, standing straight. “We’re going to add one. The ‘ordinary dog.'”

“The what?” asked Gallo.

“The ‘ordinary dog,'” Wise repeated. “She’s decided to add one.”

This was not a character type Gallo had rehearsed. She panted through her remaining scenes, as Sergeant persuaded her to preach to a crowd he thought might contain an assassin, hoping to spare his character the task. Gallo held the Kleenex over her heart, to stop an anticipated bullet, then ended by asking the audience to join her in singing “Alleluia.”

After the play was over, a resident was asked for a review. Janice Van Syckle thought judiciously for a few moments, then declared, “It’s different. All I can say is, it’s very different.”

As the women were wheeled back to their rooms and the actors took the set down, Wise expressed the same feelings about playing a nursing home.

“It was different,” he said.

The Dramatist Revolutionary Army will present War-Dice Friday, August 16, at 7:15 PM and Saturday, August 17, at 11:40 AM as part of Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins XIV at Angel Island, 731 W. Sheridan. Festival admission is $5 for a single admittance, $10 for an all-day pass, and $25 for the weekend. For more information, call 773-871-0042.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.