at the Organic Lab Theater

Despite the growing evidence that we have at least a dozen more theaters than we have audiences to support them, non-Chicagoans keep believing what they read about the burgeoning theater scene in Chicago. Even when they wouldn’t know a burgeon if it hit them.

Take I.F.S., lately arrived in the wake of such other recent immigrants as Dallas’s Imo and Allen and the New Yorkers who founded Igloo (and also, on a sobering note, the Vermonters whose Atlantic Theater Company just headed back east and the Wisconsinites whose New Age Vaudeville Company is moving back to Door County). A six-member troupe, these hopeful travelers, former members of the Rat and Duck Playhouse in Athens, Georgia, clearly believe in our thespian Mecca on the Lake; after all, nobody migrates here for the weather, the politics, or the rents. No, once again the siren song of Steppenwolf has been heard across the land . . .

I wish I could give them a heartier welcome. But their inaugural offerings, Fits in Parts and Mukluk, two very strange (but not invigorating) original collaborative efforts, never reach beyond their pointless enigmas. Puzzling without profundity, absurd without imagination, and offering something for nobody, these self-defeating actors’ exercises are visually arresting and dramatically dead.

At least Fits in Parts adds up to a metaphor that matters. From the hot, dry isolation of his dig, an archaeologist (Blair Thomas) is gazing down on four roped-off surveyor quadrants. Each in turn is being excavated by four obsessed probers: a filmmaker (Michael Paxton) who sees himself as only an eye attached to a camera; a woman in a faded ball gown (Jeanne Nemcek) who, as she mops the dirt, appears equally obsessed with cleanliness and possessed by ancient tribal recollections; another woman (P. Martin), who’s haunted by the vision of a yellow room and a brother’s incest; and an apparent creature of habit (Carl Aniel) who pushes the dust with a crutch and natters on about various emotional infidelities. The archaeologist talks of knowing the weight of the earth and “how easy it is to be buried, to disappear” — but he remains oblivious to this forlorn four, whose fugue of desperation is finally snuffed out by the crushing sedimentary deposits of their memories. At the end he’s coldly measuring their prostrate remains.

Initially fascinating, these separate soliloquies with their stratified sorrows are fairly well enacted, and they’re effectively manipulated by Patrick Penney’s ominous score. But Fits in Parts refuses to build them into anything more than a babble of static fragments, idly improvised and never integrated into a complete vision. What results is a tedium that’s not hypnotic enough to justify its obscurities.

Their “comedy” Mukluk is almost a strangeness beyond telling. Written by Aniel and Penney and — in its 50s setting and lobotomized innocence — clearly influenced by Peewee Herman, this weirdness involves Oslo, a masochistic talking dog (Aniel) whose confidently crazy owner, Tina (Nemcek), has kidnapped little Vanessa (Martin), a tyke who loves to wear objets trouves and has collected rocks, a leash, gum wrappers, and a stinking fish. (Also, don’t ask me why, there’s a giant, scampering fedora hat that Oslo adores and the action ignores.)

A cop (Penney) disguised as an exterminator and later as a mailman tries to locate the missing toddler, but Tina hypnotizes him with a fish. When Vanessa runs off, Tina puts Oslo into a full harness, gets into her favorite chair, and they head off like a dogsled (hence the title). In a presumed homage to Dragnet, this vagueness ends with a second cop (Thomas) telling us the real facts behind the kidnapping. (As if by now we really care — despite the officer’s retroactive exposition, this is one barn door that could never be locked soon enough to save the horse.)

Like an abstract painting that can be hung any which way, Mukluk could be done backward, sidewise, or upside down — and make as much sense and get as many laughs. The overachieving misdirection by Michael Paxton only adds energy to stupidity. I.F.S. should stop printing tickets until they consent to let their audience in on the joke too. Barring that, Athens isn’t a bad town to go back to.