NATURE AND SENSUAL APPETITE
Chicago Medieval Players
at the Royal George Theatre Center
Poison Nut Productions
at the Rudely Elegant Theater and Gallery
Nature and Sensual Appetite was not the original name for this play. Chicago Medieval Players cannily created it: “sensual” sells. The original title was The Nature of the Four Elements–a title that reflects all too well the didactic tone of John Rastell’s stately script. Fortunately the Medieval Players, brimming with antiquarian zeal, have turned Rastell’s “interlude” into more than just a curiosity piece from 1520.
Though he helped to engineer Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Rastell is better known as one of the earliest printers and an influential humanist. Not surprisingly this play has the bookish, declamatory tone appropriate to an era that would rather be edified than entertained. (Of course, to protect itself from accusations of frivolity, Renaissance theater had to demonstrate a moral mission–which made the personification of virtues and vices obligatory.)
In Nature the pivotal role is Humanity, the play’s everyman. And to anchor Nature in its era, director Ann Faulkner imagines that Humanity also mirrors the impetuous, lusty young Henry VIII–Humanity’s choices provide an allegory for the sacred and profane options that Henry would have faced. This useful conceit also offers an antidote to the excessive abstraction of Rastell’s set speeches.
Fighting for the loyalty of Humanity are Studious Desire and Sensual Appetite, while Ignorance and Experience provide, respectively, dubious and well-tested advice. A courtly Messenger orates on the princely requisites of moderation and enlightenment for the intelligent governing of the kingdom. Studious Desire, still stuck in a postmedieval haze, lectures on pre-Copernican cosmology (as uncritically derived from Ptolemy), and speciously explains to skeptical Humanity why Earth is round and how it stays up. Using a map that reflects the latest in 1520 cartography, Experience expounds on geography, with unctuous references to the ignorant God-forsaken savages whom European explorers were intently trying to save through smallpox.
When Humanity falls into the toils of Sensual Appetite and frolics his youth away at a local tavern, Nature–clad in carrots–intervenes and gently rebukes Humanity for straying from the path of education and restraint. (If only Henry had listened to this play . . . )
Because the script bounces from tedious rhetoric to tedious raillery, Faulkner tries to inject some levity into the antiquated arguments. The clearest example is the geography lesson: Studious Desire and Experience ogle each other as they salaciously examine various peninsulas and delightedly confuse “nipple” with “Naples.” Thrown in for good measure are four a cappella songs–one a tribute to Robin Hood–and a dance that employs volunteers from the audience. There are also complimentary medieval refreshments, including Shrewsbury cakes and ale.
Though they resort to clumsy physical humor, Robert Schiele as Experience and Palmar Hardy as Studious Desire effectively clone and spoof Rastell’s pompous pedants. On the side of sin are Peter Christensen’s fatuous Ignorance, Claudia Hommel’s vamped-up Sensual Appetite, and Jeffrey Jenkins’s soused-up “taverner” or innkeeper (Jenkins, a former clown, mugs far too many reactions and steals focus from everyone around him). Dominic Armato gives Humanity the sweet-faced callowness of a 16th-century Candide.
Jean Dunkerley’s costumes look like Holbeins come to life. Unfortunately Betsy Dzuira’s intimate set, with its banks of candles, is marred by a klieg light that bathes everything in an unbecoming glare; the candles don’t have a chance.
There are so many ways to go wrong with improv. Quantum Theater, now playing at the Rudely Elegant Theater and Gallery, manages to find every one. The male and female cast, called Twelve Gals Named Butch, take stupid suggestions from the audience, then dumb them down or ignore them. They never lift a scene off the ground or end it cleanly. Their running jokes peter out the first time around. Unable to stumble on a witty line or facial expression, they regularly lapse into incoherence. At their nadir they fall back on gay stereotypes that predate vaudeville and stink even worse today.
No blackout arrives too soon. The Gals can’t think on their feet to save their asses.
There’s a killer gimmick to the proceedings. Each of the two excruciatingly unfunny 45-minute acts is based on an audience suggestion for a play. Changes in the plot are dictated by a “wheel of probability” spun by a hapless audience member whose name is drawn from a hat. Wherever the wheel stops–Bad Karma, Good Luck, Miracle, Play God, or Quantum Leap–that option must be incorporated into the story. Once the category is determined an audience member cuts a deck of cards to decide on the specific form of the twist of fate. (Examples on my ill-fated night were “Miracle–Friendship” and “Good Luck–Recreation.”)
It’s less confusing than it seems, and much less interesting.
Though the audience suggestions were lamebrained–“Cats on Quaaludes” and “Pirate Women Who Sing From Cleveland”–they were works of genius compared to what the 12 Gals did to them. In one typical idiocy the show’s director, Jock L. Schloss, pretends to buy a cat from an audience member, feels the cat scratch him, and kicks it offstage. Blackout.
Other unfathomable inventions: a couple who get high by licking record albums, a game show that the contestants try to take over with a gun, and a witless variety show set in a bowling alley that the performers try to take over with a gun. Guns seem to be the main method these folks have of ending a scene (just like my high school drama students at Francis Parker). It was less than sidesplitting, considering that this was the day 24 people were shot down in a massacre in Texas.
Only one of the 12 Gals showed a glimmer of comic potential: Dave Baum played a splenetic English brat who kept whining about how much he hated Ohio and wanted to go home (a wish that spread through this crowd like a hopeful rumor).
Even in the worst improv you can still argue from the black depths of your boredom that–yes, this is moronic beyond even a Chevy Chase retrospective or an Ernest Goes to . . . festival, but hell, maybe it’s a learning experience for its rank comics; maybe they’ll come out of it less ghastly than if they’d never performed before a captive audience. Or you think, maybe they’re amusing themselves, or fooling their relatives into thinking they’re carving out careers. All through this dreary two hours I grabbed at such consolations. They didn’t help. Quantum Theater is what I’ve dreaded for years–improv without a single redeeming feature. I just pray it won’t metastasize.