Cook County Theatre Department

Twenty years before Einstein revolutionized science with his theory of general relativity, physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, holed up in a basement in Cleveland, split a beam of light into two perpendicular rays, hoping to prove the existence of ether, a mythical substance scientists for centuries had believed filled the entire universe. Without ether as a medium, light waves from distant stars would have to travel through a vacuum to reach the earth, a notion incompatible with the physics of the day.

When their experiment offered no trace of ether and unexpectedly revealed that light, unlike any other known substance, travels at a constant, unsurpassable velocity, physicists spent a generation banging their heads against various walls trying to make sense of the results. Some, refusing to believe the obvious truth of the experiment, constructed elaborate quasi-mechanical models of ether that would allow it to exist in an undetectable state. More daring scientists, most notably Hendrik Lorentz, tried to expand upon the Michelson-Morley results but ultimately threw up their hands as a seemingly incomprehensible universe began to unfold, one in which lengths were squished as bodies speeded up. It wasn’t until 1905 that Einstein eloquently articulated light’s unavoidably enigmatic nature: the equivalence of mass and energy, the interrelatedness of space and time, the birth of an entirely new universe.

If genius can be construed as the ability to take the work of others and unlock the profundity of the obvious, then like Einstein the folks at Cook County Theatre Department have come down with a bad case of it. For a little over two years this dedicated ensemble, creating original nonnarrative theater pieces, have been trying to discover ether, a magical medium that might carry their irreverent, antitheatrical sensibility to a theatergoing public with the directness and clarity of light from a distant star. While they have produced more than a handful of stellar images in that time, they’ve been thwarted by an inability to fully understand how their own brand of theater works, struggling to become fluent in a language of their own invention. Until now.

Minutes and Seconds is Cook County’s most enigmatic and risky piece thus far. In the past they’ve tackled relatively manageable material, deconstructing Oklahoma! in Swing Your Lady, creating an original fairy tale in Fable, arranging various found texts in Clowns Plus Wrestlers. To develop Minutes and Seconds, an exploration of the dream state using objects, movement sequences, and original texts, the group turned their gaze entirely inward, to the murky unconscious, a realm that has defeated many an intrepid artist before them. According to director Brian Mendes, the months-long rehearsal process was so difficult and fraught with controversy that Cook County nearly abandoned the project only a few weeks shy of its premiere.

Yet on opening night Mendes’s six-person cast showed no signs of their past travails, performing a seamless hour of rich, suggestive material seemingly without effort. The ensemble has finally given up its search for ether, for a form that might capture all the subtleties of its rigorously pedestrian approach, apparently realizing that the approach itself generates meaning. The keys to unlock the mysteries of their own method have always been in their hands, but like Einstein’s predecessors, they simply haven’t jiggled them with enough finesse.

The first key to Cook County’s success is their attention and sensitivity to form and structure. They have created their pieces, evocative jumbles of incongruous texts, gestures, and images, through assembly and orchestration, like architects or composers. Yet the coolness and abstraction of these structural concerns have been at odds with the company’s passionate desire to be understood and to create meaning, and as a result their performances at times have been confused and troublingly oblique. Their more recent pieces seemed cloaked in an indecipherable code, as though the outer form had grown so opaque that precious little of the original inner light shone through. In their last piece, Clowns Plus Wrestlers, it was as if they’d thrown up their hands, like Lorentz, and created a work without any regard for its possible meaning.

In Minutes and Seconds, Cook County have created their most formal piece to date, structuring it according to specific time units, of a minute to about ten minutes, rather than ideas or images. The piece begins with a man’s head appearing in a circular hole atop a 14-foot wooden tower. A second man, in a padded suit, enters, turns on a stopwatch, and in a halting, spiritless, decidedly dopey voice begins to question the head about his bad relations with his neighbors. After exactly a minute, the man in the fat suit exits, reappearing twice more during the show, once for two minutes and once for three. In another scene all the actors have seven minutes to simultaneously tell the complete history of their relationship with someone. The result is that many scenes, just like dreams, end abruptly, often smack in the middle of the action.

Of course, using units of time as the basis for a performance is nothing new. Robert Wilson used such an approach in many of his early operas, as do the authors of most contemporary pop songs (two 16-bar verses, an 8-bar bridge, and another 16-bar verse, for example). However, Cook County has taken a great step forward by finding the expressive potential in the formal constraints themselves rather than trying to make sense in spite of them. They have imposed seemingly arbitrary limits on their work that necessarily compress and condense the action. This technique not only gives the performance efficiency and urgency but evokes the nonsensical immediacy of a dream, in which the dreamer unquestioningly accepts that something must be accomplished at once. How often I have dreamed that I absolutely must get to my office in ten minutes even though it’s Sunday and I can’t find my pants.

The company’s second key to success, which until now has worked as much by accident as design, has been its insistence on the primacy of the simple task. I’ve always been struck by how little “acting” and how much “behaving” goes on in a Cook County production. Performers walk on treadmills, scamper up heating pipes, sing about their cars while executing movement sequences, all without posture or pretense or any actorly concern for motivation. The company’s physical language has been rich and evocative in and of itself. But whenever the performers had to speak there were problems. They have long struggled to “just” deliver stretches of dialogue or recite found texts as matter-of-factly as they might drink a glass of water or change clothes. At best their deadpan delivery created delightful comedy. At worst it made long sections feel passionless and irrelevant.

With Minutes and Seconds, the company has resolved this problem by distilling most of their text to pure descriptions of the stage action. “My dress is unwieldy,” declares a woman in a ballerina costume that simply won’t behave. She holds a can of paint in each hand and, before setting them down, slipping her feet through the handles, and dancing across the stage, tells us, “These paint cans are not as heavy as they seem.” The cast spend the evening stating the truth, ever mindful of the absurd banality of their statements. A counterpoint to these humdrum observations are the actors’ brief poetic bursts, all the more mysterious and evocative in this merely factual landscape. “My nose is longer than the space provided for it,” exclaims one performer. “How do you teach your children things you do not know?” asks another. The collision of the concrete and the illogical, eloquently replicating the dream state, makes the hour-long piece giddy, unpredictable, and resonant. This performance gives us, in the words of poet Marianne Moore, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”

In addition to reinvestigating and reinvigorating their use of text, Cook County have placed an even greater importance on the execution of tasks. And the tasks they’ve set for themselves are more inventive and visually arresting than in any of their previous works. An overly dramatic woman, slinking about the stage, mounts a white screen on one side of her head and a light bulb on the other, continuing her saunter with only an overly dramatic silhouette for a head. A man standing on a platform high above the stage grabs a handle, which is connected to a long chain running along the ceiling, and leaps into space. As he descends to the stage, a woman clinging to the other end of the chain is pulled up into the air, landing precisely in the man’s former position on the platform.

The purity of these exquisite actions–none can be faked, all are expertly and playfully executed–give the merely actual a sense of magic and discovery. The company’s indebtedness to dadaism and surrealism is clear, especially in light of their preoccupation with dreams. But the group owes an even greater debt to Fluxus, a movement born in the late 1950s dedicated to thumbing its nose at a pretentious art world through the celebration of the incongruous and commonplace. Fluxus musician George Maciunas nailed down every key on a piano as one of his compositions. John Cage, in a kind of proto-Fluxus gesture, sat in silence at a piano for four minutes and 33 seconds. Robin Page, in perhaps my favorite bit of Fluxus music, kicked a guitar offstage, down the aisle, out of the building, around the block, and back onto the stage again.

Fluxus artists’ interest in the purity of task was inherited from the burgeoning New York “happenings” scene. Some pieces were devised simply as sets of instructions, such as Yoko Ono’s Conversation Piece: “Bandage any part of your body. If people ask about it, make a story and tell. If people do not ask about it, draw their attention to it and tell. If people forget about it, remind them of it and keep telling. Do not talk about anything else.” The Cook County actors seem to be following equally ludicrous instructions with a similarly unwavering focus. One man washes broken plates over and over, wearing a makeshift sink like a cigarette girl’s tray. Meanwhile everyone else frantically files papers in various cubbyholes in the wooden tower, as though everything depended upon getting each sheet in precisely the right slot.

Fluxus artists, like those at Cook County, displayed a deep reverence for irreverence, typically maintaining a stolid poker face throughout their actions. Kristine Stiles could have been describing Minutes and Seconds when she wrote of Fluxus, “Performers appear oblivious to the inappropriate use of the body or its objects, to their apparent ineptitude, and to the incongruity and jumbling of seeming unconventional behaviors. This ostensible inability to do or get things right is the source of amusement and release.” Minutes and Seconds is populated by slightly dazed, ever-ungraceful clowns, all dressed in ill-fitting suits and as baffled by the nonsensical nature of their actions as the audience is. With the brilliantly subtle physical comedian Gary Wilmes setting the standard, this cast executes hilariously nonchalant shtick without ever breaking a sweat.

But perhaps the most important Fluxus legacy Cook County has inherited, one that’s too often forgotten by contemporary theater artists, is their belief in the uniqueness and sacredness of the simple human presence. Fluxus artist Ben Vautier charmingly embodied this idea by filming himself in a chair in the middle of a street in Nice with a sign leaning against him that read, Regardez moi cela suffit je suis art (“Look at me that’s enough I am art”).

Cook County actors don’t pretend to be anywhere but on their own stage. They call each other by their first names during the show. They stand before us only as themselves, vulnerable, ridiculous, and real. Cela suffit. Compare them to the cast of Steppenwolf’s terminally overproduced A Clockwork Orange, in which the droogs spent so much time and energy thrashing about the stage trying to convince the audience and themselves that they truly were vicious, amoral, futuristic teenage thugs that they ended up projecting all the humanity of empty space. Cook County actors, like their equally experimental colleagues in Doorika and the sadly defunct Sock Monkeys, understand that unless a performer is allowed to bring all of his or her personal history to the stage, to be fully present and to participate in the reality of the performance, theater runs the risk of turning into a hollow sham.

Such shams are everywhere, not only in the world of Chicago theater but in the universe of American culture. Those that generate revenue receive a nearly reverent stamp of truth. We can apparently “trust” our motor oil, “depend on” our antiperspirant. Our detergent is a “family friend.” Even apples, the most American of fruits, are fed synthetic chemicals to make them more red and uniformly shaped–in other words, more like fake apples. Cook County takes us to a more human universe as only live performance can, a universe as startling and ancient as Einstein’s. Here the real, unmediated human presence is valued above all else. The medium is the message. As one of the dreamers says at the conclusion of Minutes and Seconds, only when we are touched by a neighbor, when we find a genuine connection to another person, can we fulfill the ultimate dream, defying gravity.

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