Michael Zerang

at Link’s Hall, through October 9

Michael Zerang is a skilled, creative performer who’s always worth watching because he so relentlessly challenges himself, experimenting in new and exciting ways. And he’s provided an entertaining, enjoyable, and at times strange evening of performance art with his premiere of In the House of Sargon, the final installment of a trilogy inspired by the complex, conflict-ridden history of the Middle East.

My biggest regret was that we didn’t see more of Zerang the actor, for he’s not only a musician but a performer with tremendous presence and charisma, possessed of a beautifully mobile and expressive face. He’s been performing in Chicago for over 18 years, and that experience seems to have given him a command of the space when he’s acting. But when he’s playing an instrument he has a way of becoming almost invisible, allowing the instrument itself to assume center stage. Here the premiere of Sargon was the first half of the evening, and a wonderful work in progress–Barking Dogs and Deaf Lizards, music for Middle Eastern and East Indian hand drums, played by Zerang and Hamid Drake–was the second half. The invisibility Zerang approaches as a musician suits his somewhat mysterious presence as a performer.

Unlike Associated Press stories and news footage snippets, which sometimes have a way of inducing heartbreak, outrage, or melancholy, the abstraction of Middle Eastern history in In the House of Sargon does not evoke a feeling one way or another. Perhaps Zerang is contending with a dearth of media coverage about the Middle East in the last 20 years: though Americans have received some information, we know little about the underlying historical conflicts. Still, it seems Zerang’s take on these issues would be colored by personal experience, and if he’d chosen to reveal more of their emotional aspects this piece might have been that much more powerful for the audience.

Zerang begins the evening by playing a Turkish stringed instrument, a saz, sitting at stage right in a folding chair, which later becomes the front seat of a cab. After a blackout a young, attractive, nicely dressed couple (Kimberly Bruce and Paul Tamney) hop into folding chairs behind him and he pantomimes driving. After an order and an admonishment from them–“Lake Shore Drive, now don’t go on some joyride”–the young man and woman inspect his identification card and ask his name. “Sargon, I am Sargon,” Zerang answers. After making jokes about his name, his origins, and whether he might be a terrorist, the young people ask where he’s from, and Sargon replies, “Assyria.” The young man wants to know where that is, and Sargon replies, “Iraq.” The young man then makes some remarks about Desert Storm–“Old Saddam knows better than to mess with the good old U.S. of A.”–to which Sargon replies, “It was the curse–the curse of Hammurabi.” And so begins a wild cab drive from Chicago to the “House of Sargon”: the two young urban professionals are unsuspecting, naive, and opinionated, and Sargon is inscrutable, unflappable, and contemptuous of their pompous ignorance and racism.

The stage at Link’s Hall has been divided in half by a gauzy floor-to-ceiling curtain, on which film can be projected and behind which some of the action takes place. The curtain also acts as a metaphoric veil, half concealing another life, another reality beyond the world of the cab and the world of Americans’ perceptions.

The lights dim on the cabdriver and passengers, then come up glowing red behind the curtain, where we see a mummylike figure (Eric Leonardson) with his head covered lying prone on a table. A figure dressed entirely in black (Lydia Charaf) stands above him and seems to minister to him, while vocalist Carol T. Genetti trills, yelps, and yodels up and down a minor scale.

As the lights come up stage left, we see that Sargon’s hair is out of its ponytail. He looks a little wild. He’s eating nuts or seeds from a brown paper bag and seems consumed by his driving; one eyebrow is up, and he looks slightly demented and disdainful. The young man says, “I don’t recognize this neighborhood . . . ” Sargon says nothing but continues driving. The lights dim, and we see a film projection of Charaf in close-up, her face and head veiled and her eyes moving from side to side, then up and down, melodramatically accompanied by live hissing and moaning. She looks back and forth, and her hands cover her face. When the camera pans back, she seems to be on a dune. We hear a violin, and the figure on-screen begins an undulating, snakelike hand dance.

The lights come up again on the cab ride, and a nervous Tamney says, “My father is very wealthy, you know . . . how much do you want?” Sargon laughs: “Money, I don’t want money.”

Zerang’s script for Sargon is well written and witty, yet it feels underdeveloped–a bit cursory in terms of character development, both of the young urban professionals and of the mysterious Sargon. I found myself hungering for more information. And though Zerang has sandwiched some of the subtext abstractly and obliquely into the singing and dancing, the film sequences, and some of the action behind the curtain, he still needs to either share more of Sargon’s history and motives (which to Zerang might seem obvious) or direct Leonardson and Charaf to move beyond a somnambulistic stupor into something more precise–something as adamant and angry as Sargon, or as insistent and relentless as Genetti’s evocative vocals.

But many of its elements save Sargon: the writing, Zerang’s presence, Bruce and Tamney’s competent, imaginative acting, and Don Meckley’s short-wave radio sounds, which we hear throughout the piece. But the film and behind-the-curtain sequences could be better incorporated, and need not be quite so linear. The projection of the veiled woman might have appeared above the cab riders or been superimposed on them when Bruce and Tamney ask Zerang where he’s from, instead of being a separate event following a blackout.

Drake and Zerang’s percussive duet was solidly executed and produced, and the rapt audience was enthusiastic. Though there are some flaws in this elegantly staged evening of performance, the work is sufficiently complex and attractive to encourage a second look.