Element Theatre Company

at Chicago Actors Project

Eric Overmyer savors the twilight zone. In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe is populated with creatures of the night: ghostwriters for strange, marginal publications whose business hours are midnight to dawn, mystical Chinese gangsters, powerful white supremacists, and a Russian bisexual vampire. Moreover, his characters and ideas come alive at night–gain their life force through the sense of imminent danger promised by the dark. Overmyer weaves his tale in and out of dreams, fantasies, and reality, through one supposed conspiracy after another, and manages to hold them all together by an elusive yet continuous thread–the characters’ racism and obsession.

It’s hard to imagine a tame production of this play. But that’s exactly what Element Theatre Company have given it–they’ve sucked out its lifeblood as surely as Miss Petersen, the vampire, has sucked the blood of her victims.

In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe is a tale of philosophical intrigue. It revolves around Christine Penderecki and her Chinese lover, Dennis Wu, both ghostwriters for a strange, secretive company that sees its lunatic story-telling clients as suckers. The company hires Christine to pose as Lefkowitz, another ghostwriter, who has mysteriously disappeared. As Lefkowitz, she is to help a powerful white supremacist wrestle his anti-Chinese ravings into publishable prose. As she writes, she is drawn into a world of espionage and dangerous half-truths. She learns about her coworkers’ different conspiracy theories, the things they use to explain the world. She struggles with her conflicting feelings–revulsion and fascination–for the book and the man who produced it. And finally, she starts to understand the twisted logic her bigoted client lives by, which forces her to undergo a confrontation with her lover and her own prejudices. That leads eventually to another ghostwriter’s mysterious disappearance.

There’s a whole lot more–I won’t go into the gangsters and vampires–but unfortunately Element Theatre’s production not only minimizes the script’s wildness, it heightens the mundane. The designers and most of the actors appear to be champing at the bit, ready to explode with the force of Overmyer’s outrageousness, but my guess is that director Stephen M. Burdman has held them back. Burdman also makes a sharp distinction between the characters’ “real” life and their dreams and fantasies, a distinction that seems to subvert Overmyer’s intention. A lot of the play’s suspense should come from the possibility that the illusions are actualities.

Jeff Linamen’s costumes make the distinction even more clear. When the action is “real,” the characters wear conservative, yuppie-style clothes–the editors at the sleazy publishing house might as well work at Simon & Schuster, their dress-for-success looks clearly unaffected by their odd hours. Linamen is allowed to let loose a little, however, in the world of dreams, and he does it with style, devising a skintight dress with feather trim, a black fur bikini, and a satiny medieval jester’s outfit, to name just a few.

Lighting designer Peter Gottlieb does an almost superhuman job of creating eerie moods and tight area lighting in one of the smallest playing spaces I’ve seen. In one provocative effect, he places a small desk lamp to illuminate only the actor’s face, creating shadows and odd highlights that give the scene an after-hours flavor. But whenever reality seeps in, the lights, too, respond generically.

With two exceptions, the talented cast have not found a way to reconcile the tight control of this staging with their characters’ far freer words and actions. Each comes closest to a solution, however, when he or she is onstage alone. Vito Bitondo’s Lyle Vial (another ghostwriter) is at his quirkiest and most excitable when he sits by himself at his desk reading his newest chain letter. Molly Reynolds as Maria Montage, the boss lady, approaches a great down-and-dirty style when she does a strip for no one. Russell Kuzahara as Wu is charmingly eccentric when he tells the audience a joke in Chinese. But when the actors get together for a scene, their engaging idiosyncrasies vanish–they all become straight men. You can almost see the reins being drawn in.

The two exceptions to the general confusion of the cast are Jenifer Tyler and Wendy Goldman Rohm. As Christine Penderecki, Tyler never varies–and she must shoulder her share of the blame for the production’s inadequacy. She seems incapable of playing any emotion–Gary Cooper is Mr. Excitable compared to her. When Christine is at her most upset, Tyler displays her inner turbulence by walking across the stage at a slightly quickened pace. She poses and makes faces through the whole evening, showing no visible signs of involvement with the text.

Rohm, on the other hand, is magnificent in all three of her roles. She’s the only one who successfully blends the starkness of the production with Overmyer’s gleeful abandon. As Buster (the boss lady’s assistant), Rohm is intriguing from the moment she walks on. Though she says nothing for a long while, the way she stands–arms crossed over her chest and hands buried in her armpits–lets you know that Buster’s an odd one. Rohm delights in her power and sexuality as Miss Petersen, the vampire, and as the medieval Joculatrix she exudes an impishness and karmic innocence that make you believe absolutely that she could let loose a practical joke on the universe that would reverberate for millennia.