Igloo, the Theatrical Group


Maestro Subgum and the Whole

at Igloo, the Theatrical Group

If Igloo, the Theatrical Group, is one of the treasures of Chicago’s theater scene–and it is–it’s largely because of the company’s commitment to original work. Almost everything Igloo’s done has been new, frequently written for them. The few exceptions to this rule have been rarely seen pieces–for example, oddities by Fassbinder and Artaud and Mabou Mines’s A Prelude to Death in Venice. You’ve always been able to count on Igloo to present shows you’d never get a chance to see anywhere else.

So it was a bit surprising, at first, when Igloo announced it was presenting Miss Margarida’s Way. Roberto Athayde’s 1977 script is fairly well known; as a star vehicle for Estelle Parsons, it played at the Goodman Theatre twice in 1982. Mounting Miss Margarida (no pun intended–I’m sure Miss Margarida wouldn’t approve) marks an interesting step for Igloo, away from company-generated fare and, more important, toward more challenging standards of performance.

Athayde’s play is virtually a one-woman show, except for a couple of brief walk-ons by a hapless, silent boy. Miss Margarida is a two-act tour de force monologue by an ultraauthoritarian teacher who alternately (unpredictably, schizophrenically) coddles, coos, and curses at her class–us. Miss Margarida toys with her students, tenderly and then tyrannically; her object is to indoctrinate us into accepting that we have no choice in our lives. “You didn’t choose to be born, and school is no different,” she advises us, firmly but gently. And then, without warning, furiously: “Fuck you!”

Miss Margarida’s class is ostensibly a session in biology–the great beginning principle of which, we are advised, is, “You were born without choice.” Along the way, she touches on politics, spirituality, history, even a little primer in animal rights and a quick dab of French. No sex, though–but if we’re good, she hints, she might show us her tits.

Miss Margarida is, of course, Authority. She’s the church and the state–an especially potent combination in a near-theocracy like Catholic Brazil, where Athayde wrote this play and where it was originally banned. Athayde’s subject is the absurdity, the illogic, and ultimately the insupportability of total power as embodied in the larger than life, almost mythic, yet all too human Miss Margarida. In order for this to work–and in order to pull off the play even when the script collapses under its own overloaded metaphor–the play must be more than a play; it must become an experience. We must be drawn into the fantasy that we are students and this is our teacher who can do whatever she wants to us–kick us in the balls, swear at us, show us her tits. Even as we laugh at the absurdity of Miss M.’s rantings, we must tremble.

When Estelle Parsons did Miss Margarida at the Goodman, it was a star turn, a marvelous study in theatrical pyrotechnics, but it didn’t quite work. Parsons couldn’t overcome the barrier between stage and audience; she was on display, and we were comfortable in our bourgeois theater seats. At Igloo, the play comes closer to the kind of total experience the author surely envisioned. A bare room has been transformed into a tacky classroom, with uncomfortable hard-backed chairs (some people sit at desks). The walls are covered with schoolroomish paraphernalia–maps, anatomy charts, magazine articles, and the weirdest skeleton you’ve ever seen. There’s also an enormous steel fire door–probably a fire code requirement, but it makes for a great effect when Miss Margarida nonchalantly walks into the room and slams the door with a thunderous clang.

Mary Beth Kelleher, a large young woman, makes a strangely vulnerable, girlish Miss Margarida; need is written all over her fair, chubby face, which makes her direct one-on-one encounters with us in the audience even more guilt inducing. Kelleher’s got a great smile for the part–just slightly twisted by defensive anger and a lifetime of repression; though she’s completely in control of us, she is basically afraid that she will lose control and we will take it. Her obscene tirades at us are like those of an unhappy teenager who’s just been mocked by the other kids. That very human edge in Kelleher’s performance underscores the thesis of the play, which is that tyrannical governments are flawed at the core by their inability to relate to basic human needs. Where Kelleher needs to improve from the performance I saw is in reining in her energy until the play’s final explosion–a moment of nearly unplayably extreme emotion that doesn’t reach the peak it should here. But as directed by Daniel P. Munnelly, this is a strong, surprisingly touching, and often wildly funny performance piece.

Down the hall from Miss Margarida’s classroom in Igloo’s sprawling space (a former paint factory), the performance group Maestro Subgum and the Whole is holding forth in what they call “a canny cabaret,” titled The Angles of Angst/The Omelettes of Experience. A collection of songs and monologues organized very loosely around a sensibility of alienation and nuclear anxiety, Angles of Angst is a strangely tepid, overly controlled performance piece that does nonetheless showcase considerable musical versatility: songwriter and pianist Joe Huppert quite convincingly imitates a range of popular styles, including gospel, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, country rock, and Edith Piaf-style ballads.

The general tone of the show is pseudo-Brechtian; but Brecht knew you can’t teach people if they don’t understand the words. The performers in Angles of Angst don’t know, and need to learn, how to put a song across. Beau O’Reilly, the evening’s emcee, has a patented leering growl that reads as decadent but just doesn’t communicate; his sister Kate has a strong soprano voice but sluggish rhythm and some of the mushiest diction I’ve encountered in quite a while. However, a dark-haired woman named Jenny Magnus brings the show to life in her sequences: she’s vigorous, precise, and clearly focused as she bobs around the stage in a collection of quirky, athletic moves while chanting a tautly rhythmic poem influenced equally by rap music and Max Headroom.

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