John Cusack says he first encountered a modern version of commedia dell’arte–the satirical, seemingly improvisational form of entertainment popular in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries–several years ago in Los Angeles. “Me and my friend Jeremy Piven went to see the Actors’ Gang,” headed by actor Tim Robbins. “We were wowed by them, by their energy. It was a revelation–a total contrast to the boring movie I was doing at the time. So we started jammin’ with them.”

Thoroughly converted, he went to Paris to study the Theatre du Soleil–the originator of the commedia revival–at work. Back in Chicago, Cusack and Piven convinced another Evanston Township High School buddy, Steve Pink, to join them in introducing the commedia approach to Chicago. Zealous believers in the theater’s power to change people’s consciousness, the trio quickly organized a collective of like-minded actors and called themselves New Crime Productions. Coming up with the name was easy, recalls Cusack: “New Crime is a term for video piracy. We think it describes us as cultural outlaws and pioneers.”

Three of the four plays New Crime has put on over the past three years–subversive lampoons of pre-Nazi Germany, the French Revolution, and Red Brigade Italy–reveal its founders’ political bent. Critic Anthony Adler, writing in Chicago magazine, said New Crime “gave me back my faith in theater as a political discourse.” But Cusack says the group tries not to be preachy. “I don’t believe in denying an audience entertainment. We present more of a spectacle. We want theater to be fun and passionate.” The New Crime style has “touches of the Kabuki,” says Cusack, “and there are definite influences of Brecht and Weill.” Among New Crime’s hallmarks are the masklike makeup worn by the players and the funky, distorted, mostly black-and-white sets that pay homage to German expressionism. They also use a live band to punctuate the comic timing.

New Crime’s current production, a version of Hunter S. Thompson’s psychedelic road saga Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, directed by Cusack and Pink, probably qualifies as both politics and spectacle. The story follows the counterculture icon, accompanied by his Samoan wrestler attorney Dr. Gonzo and armed with a mind-boggling variety of drugs, on an early-70s road trip to Las Vegas, that neon-lit mecca of blatant capitalism.

To Cusack, Thompson belongs in a pantheon of great political writers alongside George Orwell and Noam Chomsky. “They’re interested in getting hold of the truth. They ask: What is capitalism? Democracy? They shake us from apathy. Too many people today don’t give a fuck, you know. Some friends of mine have gone corporate. They play it safe. But deep inside they want a purpose, they want the truth. That’s what’s so great about Thompson; he takes us on a surrealistic trip to Las Vegas, the bone marrow of the American Dream turned nightmare. Yet he shows you the reality–what the power structure really is. He exposes the puritanism and racism that have plagued this country for so long.” Thompson also “foresaw the emergence of the right wing, from Nixon to Bush,” marvels Cusack. Thompson, who came to prominence in the 60s for his chronicle of the Hell’s Angels, has come to personify irreverent, on-the-edge journalism, and his work gleefully deflates the pretentious and skewers the status quo–setting a standard for Cusack and his fellow actors.

The stage adaptation of Fear and Loathing, by Lou Stein, has been around since 1982, but it’s been staged only once before, in London. While refusing to divulge the details of their elaborate mise-en-scene–“One of our aims is to surprise, to shock,” says Cusack–he and Pink vouch that the almost verbatim translation keeps intact many of the book’s picaresque escapades, including the uproarious scene of the brazen, stoned reporter covering a national convention of drug enforcement officers. Bill Cusack plays Raoul Duke, Thompson’s thinly disguised alter ego, Jeremy Piven is Dr. Gonzo, and Paul Quinn takes on the role of the narrator, a ringmaster of sorts who presides over the frenzied madness. To heighten the 60s feel, Jef Bek has come up with a score that’s part rock ‘n’ roll, part Vegas lounge. “Thompson’s pacing is ideal for us,” says Pink. “We look for narratives that go from emotional peak to emotional peak. And his has that rhythm. The challenge will be for us to keep up the emotional energy, to be constantly on the edge of the psychotic.”

Up to now, all of New Crime’s shows, presented in low-rent spaces, have broken even–so there’s no financial pressure to compromise their vision. Cusack and Pink say they’d never consider something like a subscription season, because, Pink says, of a “fear of institutions. We don’t want to be locked into doing things we might not want to do. We give our audiences a choice: if we’re good, come and see us. I can’t imagine us ever becoming like the Steppenwolf doing shows sponsored by AT&T.”

Cusack says he’d like to take the company on the road someday, to LA and New York perhaps. Producing “worthy events geared for TV and movies” is also a possibility, says Pink, who moonlights in an outreach program that brings theater to the mentally ill. Both agree that New Crime must remain a “loose-knit collective” whose members come and go, with the rapid turnover functioning as a way of recharging the group’s creative battery. Says Cusack, “We don’t want people to say to us, ‘Hey, where’s that juice?'”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas opens tonight at 8 at At the Gallery (soon to be renamed the Chopin Theater), 1543 W. Division. Show times are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 7 and 10:30 PM, and Sundays at 7 PM. Admission is $12 ($6 for students and seniors). For more info, call 486-7357.

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