Theater Oobleck

at Chicago Filmmakers

Maybe it’s a dearth of intellectual heroes in contemporary life that’s leading Chicago theaters to look back in search of inspiration–this season has been marked by shows that draw on real and legendary figures of the past, from Camille and Don Juan to Francisco Goya and Helena Blavatsky. Steve Martin, making his playwriting debut, imagined a conversation between two geniuses, Picasso and Einstein, in his glib, reductive Picasso at the Lapine Agile at Steppenwolf last fall; the play is back for a brief return engagement in an altered version whose rewrites confirm the playwright’s lack of much to say.

Throwing the Martin script’s triviality into even sharper relief are two fine new shows about a figure whose influence equals Einstein’s and Picasso’s: Sigmund Freud. The Making of Freud, which marks the return of the long-absent Theater Oobleck collective, invents encounters between the original wizard of id and such cultural icons as Jean-Paul Sartre, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Montgomery Clift; Freud, Dora and the Wolfman, a collaboration between Live Bait Theater and Pegasus Players, depicts fictional meetings between Freud and two of his most famous patients.

As David Futrelle pointed out in these pages a couple of weeks ago, Freud is under intense attack these days, particularly for his insensitivity to women. But you don’t have to unquestioningly admire someone of Freud’s significance to appreciate him–nor do you have to reject everything he represents if you criticize his shortcomings. David Isaacson’s The Making of Freud and Sharon Evans’s Freud, Dora and the Wolfman neither bash nor beatify their protagonist: they recognize his profound impact on modern Western thought, for better and worse, and offer remarkably balanced yet highly individual responses. Neither playwright seeks to be objective (or even historically accurate); each uses Freud as a touchstone for his or her own concerns.

Though different in tone–Evans’s play is delicate and whimsical, Isaacson’s brash and rough-edged–both works deliberately blur fantasy and reality, hardly surprising considering the importance of dream symbolism in Freud’s analytical method. Both are marked by expansive inquiry; rather than dumbing down their characters, the shows challenge their subjects and their viewers, venturing into intriguing new areas suggested by odd juxtapositions of history and fiction. Yet these are not ponderous productions but amusing, exhilarating celebrations of theater at its most playful and intelligent.

The Making of Freud is based on a notoriously dysfunctional episode in filmmaking history: John Huston’s 1962 Freud, whose screenwriter, Jean-Paul Sartre, had his name taken off the Oscar-nominated script when he saw Huston’s truncating rewrites. Of course Sartre’s draft would have run some eight hours, but Huston was also concerned with the content: one dream sequence had the good doctor parading around in lederhosen and high heels. The macho moviemaker was even more bothered by real-life unconventional sexuality–and his leading actor, Montgomery Clift, was gay. The homophobic director’s sadistic handling of his masochistic star (who suffered from cataracts, hyperthyroidism, alcoholism, and the ongoing neuroses that gave his work such fascinating complexity) ranged from psychological abuse (mocking the actor’s impaired memory) to physical intimidation. Things weren’t helped by Clift’s candid assessment of Huston’s revamped screenplay: “It sucks.”

From this real-life situation, playwright-actor Isaacson spins hallucinatory, farcical variations on the themes of role playing and fantasy. After using the making of Freud to epitomize the tensions inherent in homosexual and Jewish identities (with Sartre, brandishing an oversize pencil, serving as sardonic commentator), the play flashes back to World War II, when the young Clift, a stage actor determined not to “sell out” to Hollywood, meets the homosexual German Jewish philosopher Wittgenstein. He encourages Clift to become the first gay intellectual cowboy star, and they begin an affair–the play’s most extreme contrivance but a wonderfully inventive one. The lovers fly to Vienna to rescue the aged, cigar-chomping Freud from the Nazis–an act of Hollywood-style heroism that stands in wacky yet touching contrast to Clift’s mid-life decline.

As in other Oobleck shows, voracious intellectual curiosity goes hand in hand with frenetic physical comedy. The actors aim for credible caricatures and in some cases achieve them–Greg Kotis as Clift and Jeff Dorchen as Freud are genuinely affecting, and as Wittgenstein, Isaacson displays a Chaplinesque blend of slapstick and pathos. But Dave Beachtree and Lisa Stodder’s overdone accents as Huston and Susannah York obscure some of the play’s funniest dialogue in the somewhat sloppy first act.

Complementing the onstage activity is footage from Red River (Clift duking it out with John Wayne), Suddenly, Last Summer (Clift hypnotizing Elizabeth Taylor), and Elephant Walk (Taylor being attacked by a herd of elephants, phallic trunks and all)–films whose stylishly covert sexual images far outshine the selections from Huston’s self-conscious Freud.

What movie clips do for The Making of Freud puppets accomplish in Freud, Dora and the Wolfman. Inspired by two of Freud’s most famous patients–a teenage girl he called “Dora” in the monograph he wrote about her, and Sergei Pankejeff, a Russian aristocrat known as the Wolfman–this musical-theater piece depicts inner and outer experience by having the principal actors interact with child-size alter egos. Make that alter ids. These ingenious rod puppets (designed by John Gegenhuber and Cynthia Orthal and sensitively manipulated and voiced by puppeteers Jamie Vann, Gabriella Santinelli, and Julie Ann Daley) speak to their grown-up flesh-and-blood counterparts, and at some points replace them, to dramatize the ongoing dialogue we all have with our inner self.

And what complex dialogue it is here. Dora suffered from hysteria, whose roots, Freud deduced, lay in the tangled sexual jungle beneath her family’s bourgeois veneer: fixated on her adulterous father, she was propositioned by the husband of her father’s mistress. When Dora broke off her analysis, Freud told her he forgave her for preventing him from curing her. The case stands as one of Freud’s great failures, caused by his insensitivity to women and to his patient’s trust. The Wolfman, who came to Freud a decade later, derived his nickname from a childhood dream in which he saw a pack of silent white wolves perched threateningly on a branch outside his bedroom window. Freud identified the dream’s oedipal symbolism and guided the Wolfman toward sexual health–a long journey considering the patient wanted to shit on Freud’s head (thus putting the anal back into analysis).

Under Gary Griffin’s direction, Freud, Dora and the Wolfman dramatizes these cases through a lovely confluence of elements: Evans’s sensitive script and childlike lyrics, outfitted with lilting, expressionistic melodies by Eric Lane Barnes; witty designs by John Paoletti (sets), Thomas Hase (lights), and Jeffrey Kelly (costumes), which evoke the surface romanticism and sexual undercurrents of turn-of-the-century Vienna; the droll, delightful puppets; and surefooted performances by a cast of off-Loop stalwarts, notably Martie Sanders and Marc Silvia, charmingly vulnerable as Dora and the Wolfman.

In real life these two patients never met, but Evans brings the troubled twosome together to help each other, succeeding where the rigidly theoretical Freud failed. Her tampering with reality seems remarkably appropriate, considering Freud’s insistence that the imaginative life outweighs the material one. Of course this is controversial today, in light of claims that Freud bolstered his theories by suppressing evidence of sexual abuse suffered by some of his patients. Yet the underlying truth of Freud’s theory–that children respond as vividly to fantasy as to reality–bears consideration in a TV-dominated society that gluts kids’ mental life with psychic junk food–then wonders why they’re so alienated and violent. Freud has much to teach us, and these two entertaining plays help him do it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Photo, Karen A. Peters.