Cook County Theatre Department

Writing the press release for Cook County Theatre Department’s new piece, Nothing and Advertising, must have been a nightmare. This highly ambiguous, nonlinear theater work conceals its contents so well that it’s nearly impossible to say what the evening is “about.” So the press release reads: “Cook County Theatre Department actively explores the correlations between the notions of nothing and advertising.”

All right, so they can’t write a press release. But the people at CCTD sure know how to create fascinating theater, seemingly out of thin air. Nothing and Advertising is a disarmingly entertaining orchestration of oddities and banalities held together by the intriguing quality of creator David Pavkovic’s images, the efficiency of Brian Mendes’s direction, and the remarkable skill of the six-person cast.

The first act, “Nothing,” is the stronger of the two. The opening scene craftily introduces us to the work and to the unique theatrical language this group employs. An actor crosses the stage in the dark, turns on a television, and exits. The television faces away from the audience, so its blue light meagerly illuminates the stage. Then two dancers (Rebecca Rossen and Vicki Walden) enter and stare at the television as if in a stupor. Suddenly they begin to perform ambiguous, goofy gestures, their arms flailing and their pelvises jutting forward, perhaps suggesting they’re worshiping the TV. Then all the other performers enter and begin to sing an aria whose words have been taken from an advertisement for carpet cleaning. Throughout this scene various images, from ad copy to fine art, are projected onto the walls.

In this expertly crafted opening, which lasts all of two minutes, CCTD pulls the rug out from under the audience. In a gesture reminiscent of Duchamp, they obliterate the division between high and low culture. We realize we have paid admission to hear an ad for carpet cleaning sung to us. We wonder if the title of the piece will be all too accurate. At the same time, there is undeniable beauty in these pedestrian images. The dancers perform in near-perfect unison, their ridiculous gestures somehow emotionally full. Elevating ad copy to an operatic level begins to make sense as the grandeur of the promises made–your entire house cleaned for a small sum of money–begins to sink in. The ever-shifting images projected against the walls create a rich, poetic environment.

This first scene’s complexity–which is sustained throughout the evening–is matched by its utter accessibility. Things in this work are exactly what they seem and nothing more. A woman with a suitcase (Claire Morkin) sings about watching a man eat his soup. Everyone rushes onstage, one actor (Rich Maxwell) scrambles up a water pipe and rests his head against the ceiling, and then everyone exits. A man (Chris Sullivan) enters, drinks a glass of water, and leaves.

All this would seem hopelessly pretentious were it not for the utter charm of the performers. They adopt a kind of faux naivete, as if their imaginations were so blunted they couldn’t think of anything more interesting to do onstage than drink glasses of water. When they perform “scenes”–as when Maxwell, Sullivan, and Gary Wilmes discuss the warranties for their electric can openers–they deliver their lines in hilarious imitation of talentless actors. By acknowledging the apparent meaninglessness of the evening they include the audience in the joke.

In a formal sense, and this work is highly formal, “Nothing” is about the very act of performance itself. What is stageworthy? What happens when a nontheatrical gesture, like searching through one’s pockets, is put onstage? Because the performers acknowledge the ordinariness of their material, paradoxically the images open up. Searching through the pockets becomes a moment of pure loss. Drinking a glass of water becomes a moment of pure thirst. These images are not symbols, cannot be replaced by anything else. They are somehow much more true than any symbol could be.

On a deeper level, “Nothing” explores the nature of desire, overtly expressed in the recurrent theme of consumerism, the desire for products like carpet cleaners. The piece culminates in a fantasy that “the store is giving items to the people that ask for them.” In more subtle ways, the piece explores the desire for meaning and for connection. Bodies are generally isolated onstage, and performers rarely look at each other; but meaning can be found in the gaps that separate them. Were the performers to actively engage one another, the poetic space surrounding this piece would simply disappear and the work would lose its resonance and its beauty.

The second act, “Advertising,” explores the nature of desire in a more overt manner. Distinguishing between “commercial and social needs,” Pavkovic follows one man’s quest for a meaningful relationship with his body, symbolized in his desire for long hair, and another man’s quest for a relationship to spirituality, represented in his search for a god. While the purity of the images in “Nothing” gives them an unexpected profundity, the images in “Advertising” feel more forced, as if Pavkovic were trying to pull meaning out instead of just letting it appear. The second act is also so similar to the first in its deadpan style and episodic structure that the level of ambiguity becomes almost too great.

Nothing and Advertising represents a quantum leap forward from CCTD’s first piece, Swing Your Lady, achieving a much more sophisticated integration of elements. These young artists are clearly still learning how to collaborate, and missteps are to be expected. But the beauty and power of “Nothing” demonstrates CCTD’s enormous potential. Their mistakes are more interesting than most theaters’ successes.

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