Gelo to Oblivion

Half Cocked Productions at the Space

By Justin Hayford

If you walk along Randolph between State and Wells, you’ll see the words “theater district” emblazoned on the sidewalk’s concrete. Above your head, the marquees of the Palace and Oriental sparkle. But take a good look at what’s going on there (or will be soon): a Mel Brooks retread and a Rodgers and Hammerstein retread. For the moment, the district’s largest houses have as much life as a 40-year-old corpse.

Now take a walk along Damen in the block just north of Lawrence: with its run-down apartment buildings, gloomy storefronts, and two desolate laundromats, the neighborhood is far from glamorous, if not quite dead. In the middle of that block is the Space, a dreary room with a vomit-colored linoleum-tile floor, a dozen or so metal folding chairs, four clamp-on lamps, and precious little heat. Even without the gaping hole in its ceiling it would be the worst-looking performance space in town. But for now this pocket of neglect is charged with more life than the Loop theater district is likely to see all season.

Two of Chicago’s most promising playwrights are currently presenting new works at the Space under the auspices of Half Cocked Productions. Although Arik Martin and J. Scott are only in their early 20s, they show more daring, passion, and ingenuity than most of the veteran scribblers routinely produced at places like Victory Gardens and Chicago Dramatists. And they’re doing so on a frayed shoestring, reveling in extreme choices, making almost every moment of stage time feel urgent. It’s hard to find a minute in either of these shows when the Space doesn’t seem ready to explode. Yet the two are working in diametrically opposed styles: Martin’s realistic three-character, single-set drama Serendipity shows he’s an Aristotelian at heart, while Scott’s radically unstructured Gelo to Oblivion proves he’s nothing less than a theatrical nihilist.

Of course, when this kind of creative force is crammed into such a tiny and impoverished space, seams are bound to tear. Both productions, directed by the playwrights themselves, are visual disasters: poorly lit, haphazardly costumed. The program credits no designers–with good reason, since the sets clearly consist of junk found in alleys. Both casts spend half their time simply trying not to trample one another. Half Cocked is like the Curious Theatre Branch 15 years ago, when the marauding imaginations of Beau O’Reilly and Bryn and Jenny Magnus threatened to reduce the group’s crumbling, minuscule Wicker Park storefront to dust.

And just as in the early days of the Curious, part of the thrill here is witnessing the birth pangs of artists likely to develop into major players on the theater scene. Scott’s perverse, nonsensical, unrelentingly irksome Gelo to Oblivion should make him an underground cult hero; not since Shea Nangle inflicted his harrowing, virtually unrehearsed autobiographical stories on audiences four or five years back has Chicago seen an artist so adept at turning theater into trauma. Like Nangle, Scott uses a caustic lyricism to provoke, addle, and annoy. He has little interest in giving his audience pleasure: we’re met at the door by a nasty clown named Sneer who splits up couples and seats them on opposite sides of the room. And Scott’s assault on theatrical decorum rarely lets up during this 30-minute dark comedy in the form of a demonic children’s television special. At one point Fifi the Motivational Clown–a hefty woman–strips to the waist and bends over to be mounted violently from behind by a potty-mouthed rodeo cowboy named Bullchips; meanwhile two other actors shake bottles of seltzer and spray it over half the audience.

By contrast Martin could grow into the best legit playwright Chicago has seen since David Mamet. Serendipity is a taut psychological thriller set in a seedy motel room where a purported bank robber, Trip, holds a woman named Sara hostage. He’s something of a bumbling fool, wielding his pistol as though not quite sure where the trigger might be, while she’s remarkably well prepared for her predicament: though handcuffed to the bed, she manages to bring the phone receiver to her ear and begin dialing–with her feet–five seconds after Trip goes into the bathroom. Unlike nearly every other female hostage in Western literature, Sara never cries, whimpers, screams, or trembles in abject terror (except perhaps when a loaded pistol is shoved into her mouth). Always scheming, she aims to manipulate Trip’s unsettled emotional state to her own advantage.

With his knack for efficient dialogue and uncanny ability to keep a seemingly static situation moving, Martin could have simply scripted a fine two-person hostage drama. Instead he makes an outlandish choice: an escaped convict, Dennis, shows up in the motel room and takes both Sara and Trip hostage. Straining credulity, his abrupt appearance on the scene pushes the play to the brink of farce–and Martin is never afraid to exploit the inherent comedy. But Dennis also pushes the play deeper into a terrifying realism: a true sociopath and vicious misogynist, he likes to stab women–or, as he coos into Sara’s ear, to “gut” them–for pure sport. He even carves his own flesh now and again, like a crack addict turning to his pipe for a maintenance hit. He fully realizes the menace Trip can only pretend to embody.

It takes Martin a good 20 minutes to get all his elements in place, and he spends too much of that time trying to establish his tone and characters, who are nearly featureless during the play’s opening scenes. But the remaining hour of this collision between horror and farce has a volatility rarely achieved in contemporary theater. Though these three people are locked in a struggle where no one seems to have an inch to budge, Martin manages to keep the action thrilling, allowing the characters’ allegiances to shift every few minutes and repeatedly calling into question the play’s back story. As the evening progresses, it begins to seem that Trip never robbed a bank and that Sara was never simply his hapless hostage. Who Dennis might be is anyone’s guess. By the time the play is half over, it’s nearly impossible to trust anything we see onstage, giving the story the allure of a classic mystery.

Martin’s able cast digs into his play with unapologetic ferocity. As Trip, John Wilson may not make choices as precisely as the other two actors, but he does capture the luckless, unimaginative essence of his character. Jeremy Glickstein as Dennis is a thrill to watch, a truly menacing presence with devastating sex appeal, as abhorrent as he is seductive. He’s the perfect foil for Shana Orlowsky as Sara, who exploits her own sexual magnetism in an effort to save her skin. Chained to the bed almost the entire evening, Sara is never a victim, attacking the men in the room as though she were a cornered animal.

Except for the play’s final moments, when blood and pat explanations start flying, Martin never gives himself or his audience an easy out, never resorts to cheap hysterics. Instead his characters slowly chew into one another with pathological intensity, turning dialogue into action. Whether he learned his methods from Mamet or Shepard is immaterial–what’s important is that Martin makes this difficult kind of locked-down dramaturgy look easy.

Scott makes everything look awful. His Gelo to Oblivion has the aesthetic of an industrial accident. Although he populates his demented children’s program with eight clowns, this is a dark, sordid world of repugnant camp, equal parts Artaud, Genet, Warhol, and Ludlum. Scott makes it clear from the start that he’s not out to make any kind of conventional sense; during the first minute of the show, Fifi stands with her back to the audience and says “blah, blah, blah” over and over. Then various other clowns enact near stream-of-consciousness scenes inevitably centered on images of sexual depravity and death: a Catholic schoolgirl dreams of watching a boy in her class fellate his rosary; an erotic dancer strips topless, then saws off her own hand; a hulking man in an army trench coat and leather face mask becomes a sexual whipping boy for anyone who’ll oblige him.

It would have been easy for Scott to turn Gelo to Oblivion into an especially dark episode of South Park. But with groups like Torso and Annoyance camping it up for the past decade or so, potty humor has become almost a quaint tradition. Scott is much more ambitious–he doesn’t want to laugh off his own iconoclasm. Instead he aims to let loose the preconscious impulses typically chained deep within our darkest recesses and let them frolic in all their grotesqueness. Yet he expresses these impulses in well-chosen, poetic language, offering carefully constructed, maddeningly obscure images that cross chasms of psychological despair. If you’re willing to enter his disturbing world–and common sense would dictate otherwise–you may find it resonates for hours afterward.

By all conventional–and many unconventional–standards, this is terrible theater. But so is the work of seminal avant-gardist Alfred Jarry, whom Scott credits as one of his inspirations: like Ubu Roi, this play is a pure if harrowing and unpleasant theater experience. At the age of 22, Scott is redefining the city’s avant-garde fringe, toiling in a tradition that will leave him reviled by most audiences and critics.