Chicago Poetry Ensemble

at Maniscala Chapel

In the opening sequence of the Chicago Poetry Ensemble’s Psychopoetica oversized, fluid shadows drape the walls. They instantly signal some of the concerns of this collection of short pieces by the performers: danger, sensuality, violence, fear, and the evil within. After all, no matter how big and scary the shadows get, what’s most frightening about them is that they’re produced by ordinary human beings.

But by the show’s midpoint, these shadows had become as familiar as Disney cartoons, and the show had become more entertainment than an exploration of myths and realities about fear. That’s not necessarily a criticism: although in the end nobody will be frightened or provoked to deep thought by Psychopoetica, with the exception of one glaring insensitivity toward the end, it is fun to watch.

In the small, rectangular performance space at Maniscala Chapel–appropriately enough, a converted mortuary–the ensemble surrounds the audience, literally forcing it to look over its shoulder. Although the device is obvious, it effectively produces nervous laughter. The show also has wonderful sound effects–creaking floorboards, mysterious pings, ominous coughs, clanging pots, twisting leather–that provide a haunted-house ambience. Additionally, much of Psychopoetica is played out in darkness, with lights used sparingly.

Psychopoetica is neatly divided into three sections of short sketches. The first addresses childhood fears, which the writers hint are not necessarily without basis. The second deals with the evil outside our lives) and the last with the individual’s capacity for violence. The first section, perhaps because its subject matter is so familiar, is the most confident and well written. It might have been easier to do a whole show on this alone, but this writers and performers ensemble wisely chose to use the kid stuff only as a prelude. In particular, Bill Jonas’s “Scary Noises” is a hoot.

The second section–“The Wheel of Misfortune,” an unfortunate title that makes it sound like a frothy improvisation–is a solid piece of writing about the relationship between the mass media and violence. It is a takeoff on the TV game show but with a twist: contestants guess the names of killers from obscure clues provided by the game host. As they answer, images of real murderers are projected between shadows on the walls. Eerily, the audience at the May 27 performance muttered the answers (John Wayne Gacy, Lizzie Borden) long before the actors did.

I’m a little tired of game-show parodies, so I was not predisposed to like “The Wheel of Misfortune.” Yet it surprised me; in fact, it is probably the best part of Psychopoetica. It was, however, unfortunately marred by bad direction: Rob Van Tuyle, usually one of the ensemble’s stronger performers, used a loud, obnoxious–and obvious–approach that seriously undercut the insidious impact of the images and the language describing them.

“Dreams,” the last sequence, is in many ways the most daring, but it is also where the play’s problems lie. The ensemble chose rape as the vehicle for exploring our individual capacity for evil. But rape is far more complex than shown here. Beginning with “Death Duet,” the ensemble plays women’s rape fantasies against the reality of the act–yet it spotlights the rapist, not the victim. Amazingly–especially considering Psychopoetica’s focus on violence–this rape is only vaguely violent and, worse, highly eroticized. In Psychopoetica, rape is a sexual crime, not necessarily or primarily a violent one. Given the amount of empirical material on the causes of rape, this is incredibly irresponsible. The ensemble almost seems to suggest that women’s sexual fantasies about rape may play a role in the rape itself.

The ensemble doesn’t stop there: “Dream Cycle” offers a nightmare collection of images, but little anger, and frankly, little fear. In fact, these raped women are incomprehensibly blase. Later, in Van Tuyle’s “I’m Afraid,” his murderer-rapist character is allowed to fully voice his fears. None of his victims–women or men–answer his self-serving little song. By the time Van Tuyle grins and declares that it’s all an act and he’s not really afraid, the audience has been horribly jerked around. Clearly the point is that all of us have the seed of an ugly killer in us, but the writers come dangerously close to sympathizing with the killers at the expense of the victims.

Nevertheless, the writing overall is sharp and compelling, and the pieces complement one another well. While Psychopoetica is promoted as “performance poetry,” there is very little here that would actually read as poetry. In part, that may be the fault of the delivery. But much of the text is poetry only because the writers say it is. That doesn’t mean there isn’t good writing in this play; it’s just that nothing distinguishes it from traditional story telling or theatrical monologues. The question that poetry purists usually ask is: would it survive on the page? But considering that this was written for the stage, does that really matter?