Chicago Actors Ensemble

It may be too early in the year to say, but if you’re going to see one completely obscure avant-garde treatment of a classical myth this year, this could be the one!

Some things stump me, pushing me beyond the rationality of criticism into the risky venture of speculation: the future, for one, and avant-garde classicism. Early in the evening, I tried hard to understand what was going on, even when the poetic imagery turned into word salad. For instance, Jason’s line–“The dead Negroes rammed into the swamp like poles, dressed in the uniforms of their enemies”–might suggest any number of interpretations to a postmodern audience. Me, I don’t know what to think. When confronting this sort of artistic dilemma I feel like Woody Allen, who, while watching a mime, couldn’t decide if he was blowing glass or tattooing the student body of Northwestern University.

I have, however, apprehended the basics. The main characters are Jason and Medea. The phlegmatic Jason wants to marry Creon’s daughter. This makes Medea very jealous and (in this production) exceedingly strident. But Jason is preoccupied by war, and he seems rather cynical about it too. He is definitely what the existentialists call disengaged. This perhaps explains why he looks off into space when he talks to Medea. Or maybe he just doesn’t like to look at her. Or else Jason and Medea occupy parallel universes. Medea, on the other hand, is much easier to read. She’s pissed off and she’s going to get even. In a flourish of witchcraft, Medea conjures the death of her rival, Creon’s daughter. This murder is staged as an interpretive dance, and it’s quite convincing. The centrifugal force alone is enough to cause a cerebral hemorrhage. Fortunately, the actress playing Creon’s daughter seemed unharmed at curtain call.

But this, if you can call it such, is only the plot. Embellishments constitute the majority of the dramatic action: chanting, tableaux, dense poetry, and choral refrains. I’ve never been much on chanting, but I do like a good, original dance number. There are several dances here, ranging from the banal to the inspired. As for banal, there’s a number where the chorus plays catch with inflatable beach ball globes and dances to the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.” That one got old real quick. I far more enjoyed the fertility dance accompanying Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression.” In this number a woman arises from a Plexiglas coffin and strips down to black underwear while discarding broken dolls from her coffin. Meanwhile the chorus dances a waltz. At one point, the women heft portable TVs about their abdomens, eventually giving birth and presenting their male dance partners with baby TVs. I can’t quite put my finger on the classical significance of this choreography, but I’m sure it means something to TV owners. And even though I don’t own a TV, I sure got a kick out of it.

As you might imagine, this play lends itself to directorial license. First of all, it’s not a play; it’s three plays, which author Heiner Muller wrote to be performed simultaneously. That, at least, explains the complicated title. Director Rick Helweg doesn’t elaborate on his approach in his program notes, vowing only to stay “faithful to Muller’s concept of using theatre to ask questions.” But the only questions that I perceived–is war hell? and, does a jealous woman spell trouble?–were all too thoroughly answered by the production itself.

Nevertheless, Helweg knows how to create an arresting moment. The opening scene is especially promising. Ponderous, patient music sets the mood. The stage is empty. You hear something like the rustling of newspaper behind you. And just as you’re about to turn around and tell some dork to put away his Sun-Times, the chorus enters, two by two, carrying bags stuffed with litter. They ceremoniously dump their trash on the small, central, shrinelike platform, gathering about the garbage like suppliants making offerings. And, looking closer at the shrine itself, you realize that it’s made of trash, painted black and bronze to give it either the look of antiquity or the austerity of an expressionist sculpture. I really liked this scene. But it was immediately followed by a chaotic strobe light interpolation, and then the Beach Boys, and, well . . .

It’s hard to comment upon the acting except in broad strokes. Kit Carson (as Jason) runs cold, Mary Derbyshire (Medea) runs hot, and the chorus, like all choruses I suppose, runs tepid. Individual performances are nearly consistent, that is, tuned to a monotonous pitch throughout the show. Medea is in anguish all the time. The only variation that Derbyshire manages comes during the bewitching of Creon’s daughter, when Medea sounds absurdly like the Wicked Witch of the West. But that sort of thing can happen when you start mixing the classical with the contemporary and it’s advisable to adopt a tolerant attitude, as you would toward, say, the warmer water at the baby end of the pool.

Yet, weighing the various elements of this production, I wouldn’t conclude that the acting is all that important. More emphasis is given to spectacle. I’ve mentioned the set, the Plexiglas coffin, and the litter strewn about the stage. A good deal of credit is due set designer Karen McGann and prop designer Kurt Moore for their simple yet eloquent contributions. Elizabeth Derbyshire and Patti Hannon created the costumes, which aren’t all that fantastic, unless you’re into pastel jump suits with detachable hoods. The exceptional costume is Medea’s copper lame toga–very striking and, I’ll bet, not just a little uncomfortable. But what you have to imagine (or see the play if you can’t) is the whole thing in motion. I know it sounds like an undergraduate art exhibit, but it appeals to the eye. It grows on you, and it visually transports you through a play that might as well be written in Swahili.

Yet the play is in English, or translated into English anyway by Carl Weber, a name that’s certain not to go down in the history of poetry. I meant to provide more verbatim dialogue for this critique, just to illustrate the impenetrability of the language, but nothing made much sense to me either in or out of context. So, when I tried to write something down, I’d get mixed up. Did he say “the dried-up blood is smoking in the sun” or “the dried-up blood is stoking the sun”? After a while, I decided it didn’t matter. I mean, why question a play that, according to the director’s notes, is questioning you? If you want to enjoy this play, don’t complicate matters. Right? It’s as if you were served some unprecedented dish in an exotic, foreign restaurant. It wouldn’t do to question the waiter too closely as to the ingredients.

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