Transient Theatre

Superman, Batman, and Wonderwoman went into the woods and they went to the house where the pigs lived. They saw a wicked witch. She gave them poisoned food. Then they died. Then Wonderwoman had magic and they woke up. Everybody didn’t wake up. Then they woke up from Wonderwoman’s magic. They saw a chimney and the wolf opened his mouth. Superman exploded him.

Children’s stories–the kind they invent and tell by themselves–make remarkable reading. They don’t follow the rules of adult fiction, of course: They’re inconsistent and illogical. Cause and effect muddle together in a way that makes you wonder how children get by in the world as well as they do. Like the example quoted above (transcribed from the dictation of a kindergarten boy named Teddy by the Chicago author and educator Vivian Paley), they’re often allusive, littered with remembered plot lines and literary devices, but completely indifferent to ideas like unity or character. Stuff happens in kids’ tales. You can find yourself in a different world than you started in. You can be raised from the grave by a magic spell–or eaten by a monster who wasn’t even in the picture until the author unexpectedly decided to bump you off.

Now imagine the child’s sensibility incorporated into an adult play–American Buffalo through the eyes of Teddy. A pair of heist artists plot against their rival. They discover they’ve been ripped off. They let their girlfriend stick pins in their arms to prove they’re tough. They discuss the spells that witches and ghosts have cast on them. Logic vanishes, chronology swirls, and the universe gets ugly.

That’s David Rabe’s Goose and Tomtom. It’s a fascinating play, full of terrific language, adventurous construction, and a lunatic sensibility. Its midwest premiere, a solid, entertaining production, is the debut show at the new permanent home of Transient Theatre.

I mentioned that Goose and Tomtom is sort of “Teddy meets American Buffalo,” but really its strongest connections are to another Rabe play, Hurlyburly, his epic mope on Hollywood, drugs, guys, and the unfathomable workings of fate. Hurlyburly is an admirable piece of writing in its way, but it never seems to live up to Rabe’s intentions. The problem, I think, is that he tried to approximate the traditional well-made play, a form that, as Rabe puts it, “thinks that cause and effect are proportionate and clearly apparent, that people know what they are doing as they do it, and that others react accordingly, that one thing leads to another in a rational, mechanical way, a kind of Newtonian clock of a play.”

Rabe’s concerns in Hurlyburly were anything but Newtonian. “The guy who dies in an accident,” writes one of the play’s self-destructive Hollywood shitheads just before self-destructing, “understands the meaning of destiny.” And that’s where Rabe’s headed; he’s thinking about the relationship between internal compulsion and external event, and he’s not coming up with any easy answers. His characters–drugged-out self-deceivers and movie-biz would-have- beens–give him some room to get weird, but not enough. The show ended up seeming like an attack on the Hollywood life-style. It was, of course, but that wasn’t the point.

In Goose and Tomtom, all bets are off. The world’s gone totally non- Newtonian: Tomtom and Goose, the young toughs, imagine a kidnapping, only to discover they’ve apparently already pulled it off. Tomtom sees a sunrise. “I could see like specks of phosphorus and hydrogen. These swirls of like blood,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was.” In his own writing about Hurlyburly, Rabe makes a point of the fact that none of the characters understands everything that’s going on in the play; here nobody understands anything. The characters are children, living in a world made by a child. And the fact that they remind us of ourselves, and that this irrational, hostile world seems a lot like home –well that’s just the point.

The play makes heavy demands of the cast, and the Transients, ably directed by Larra Anderson, handle them well. Scot Casey’s Tomtom is a Method greaser with a dented gun and a brand-new holster. He comes across like a five-year-old, all abrupt enthusiasms and sinking depressions. Goose, as Tom Daniel plays him, seems more like a three-year-old–frightened, belligerent, and ready to burst into rubber-faced tears. There’s a long bit where Goose describes how a ghost turned him into a frog. (“You think you can’t talk to me about that?” says Tomtom.) He has to make us laugh and keep us going along with it at the same time, and he does it beautifully.

Christina Koehlinger is radiant and hard as Lorraine, the girlfriend. If she doesn’t walk the line between child and adult as deftly as the men, it’s mostly because the part is rather sketchy to begin with. William Mann gets off to a shaky start as Bingo, the rival, but by the time he gets to the bizarre plot twist he has to deliver (if that’s what you call it in a plotless play), he’s doing fine. As his sister, Susan Welli has to sit around blindfolded for most of the play. She manages to be so irritating (she’s supposed to) that it’s entirely plausible no one would ever untie her.

There are problems, of course. The script (we’re talking David Rabe here) is rather long and shapeless. The language is good throughout, but the third hour begins to be a little much. The long, hilarious scene in the second act where Tomtom spray paints a summary of the play on the walls of the set had people in the front rows coughing from the fumes. And the ending is, well, childish. It’s interesting, and even if you’ve read the script it’ll make you jump out of your seat. But it’s the one place where Rabe seems to be constructing the play with his brain rather than with his astonishing access to the collective unconscious.

Small complaints. This will likely never be David Rabe’s best-known play. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Streamers and even Hurlyburly are easier to get at, easier to conceive. But there’s a real sense of adventure in Goose and Tomtom, and the Transients have captured it. Their new house is well christened.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randi Shepard.