The Cook County Theatre Department has always worn a poker face. Performers simply say words rather than recite dialogue, behave rather than act, and above all never get excited about anything. Why, then, would this scrappy troupe of young avant-garde theater artists–who can’t really sing or read music let alone scrape together more than a few hundred bucks for a show–decide to mount Puccini’s sweeping opera Tosca?

“Every time we pick a show,” explains director Brian Mendes, “we try to ask, ‘What would be the greatest challenge? What would be the impossible thing? What are we so bad at that we need to try it?'”

The company has typically found unconventional answers to those questions. For 1994’s Minutes and Seconds, they assembled an evening of beguiling theater from such simple (and apparently meaningless) tasks as filing blank papers and washing broken dishes. For 1993’s Clowns Plus Wrestlers, which traveled to New York last spring, they picked books at random and then strung passages together in the hope of finding a through line later. “It was all about how you can make something out of nothing,” Mendes says. The first piece that he directed with the company back in 1992 was appropriately titled Nothing and Advertising. Much of the humor comes from the cast’s seeming lack of interest in their own performances. Hardly the right group for a melodramatic opus about a fiercely jealous diva who murders her lover’s nemesis only to watch her lover killed by a firing squad before flinging herself off a bridge.

“I thought it would be good to take something so blatantly emotional and then force us to do it,” Mendes says.

When he proposed the project last August, everyone in the group signed on. A few months later he started working on the libretto with company member Roberto Argentina, a native Italian, whose translation came back chock-full of curiously stilted phrases, literal renderings of the original turn-of-the-century Italian. “He asked if I wanted him to change it, and I said no. Because his translation sounds more like us. It acknowledges that we can’t speak Italian.”

Then came the Herculean task of boiling down Puccini’s full score to fit the Cook County orchestra: one saxophone, with an occasional drum-beat or tinkling bell thrown in for good measure. Mendes and saxophonist Julie Goldstein went through the score, circling the phrases that she would play, violin lines segueing into oboe lines and back again.

By the time summer rolled around, everyone in the company had dropped out except for two performers, Vicki Walden and Gary Wilmes. Somehow, it was decided, they alone would perform the 12-character opera. At least there wouldn’t be much fighting over who would play Tosca.

“The first five weeks of rehearsal was listening to the CD,” Mendes explains. “Listening to a song 15 times until they learned it.” They met four nights a week, for three and a half hours at a stretch. “I didn’t sleep much,” Wilmes says. “I had the opera running through my head all night long.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge was trying to find an appropriate acting style, given that the company had never attempted a narrative, let alone dramatic roles. “I told Vicki that Tosca needed to be on one hand a cold-blooded murderer, and on the other hand an all-out diva,” Mendes says. “We ended up with a lot of bad acting–Vicki knowing she can’t be a screaming, murderous woman and yet trying, trying, trying, pushing, pushing, pushing…and Gary feeling like he was losing his mind, saying, ‘I can’t do this, this is too much for me.’

“So the question became, well, if you can’t do that, what can you do? And that is really how we approached the whole thing. We went in knowing we couldn’t do it, so what would be left after we failed?”

What’s left is the company’s most audacious, thrillingly inexplicable work. The singing is horrendous yet wholly honest–no hiding behind fancy technique. With liberal deployment of stick puppets, Super-8 movies, cheap shtick, and unflinching commitment, they create a Tosca that is grandiloquent, absurd, rousing, incomprehensible, and gorgeous. It’s not for everyone (Reader critic Lawrence Bommer called it “an ambitious but failed attempt to re-create outsize emotion in a scaled-down showcase”), but it’s far from nothing.

Tosca is performed at 8 PM Fridays and Saturdays through November 25 at the Cook County Theatre Department, 2255 S. Michigan (enter on 23rd Street); tickets are $10. Call 312-842-8234 for more.

–Justin Hayford

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