Main Line Productions

at Club Dreamerz

The best theater is engaged in the search for truth, and Pocket Theatre, Prt. I (Lambs of God) is the best theater I’ve seen in a long, long time. Not the most polished theater, mind you–although the level of writing and acting in this bare-bones-budget production is quite accomplished in spite of the technical inadequacies. But polish isn’t an unusual commodity in professional theater; the search for truth is.

A collection of character portraits conceived and performed with a maximum emphasis on objectivity and honesty, Pocket Theatre is the kind of show that leaves the viewer thinking: I know these people–what does that say about me? Many theaters in Chicago fancy themselves purveyors of “true grit,” real observations of the human condition; far too often, the “grit” is just technique turned to the service of shock. Pocket Theatre is different; there are no contrived conflicts or pat revelations here, and no flashy displays of acting prowess–only the process of investigation played out in the presence of an audience.

Not that this show, a collection of seven original pieces, is without artistic refinement or stylization. Joe Larocca and John Harriman, the talented young writer-director-actors who are the main creative force behind this work, are quite consciously working in an expressionist mode influenced by early Eugene O’Neill and later Tennessee Williams, by visual artists such as George Grosz and writers such as William S. Burroughs. The monologues in this “record album for the stage”–instead of acts, the evening is divided into “side A” and “side B”–aim at a careful blending of rawness and refinement; the different characters’ patterns of speech and movement are pared down to an almost caricatured (though not cartoonish) essence to reveal an inner emotional state that we could only guess at if we saw these people in real life.

And these are definitely people we see in real life–though we’re likely to shy away from them on the street or in a bar, in fear or revulsion or just plain annoyance. The Burroughs influence is especially strong in Larocca and Harriman’s choice of subject matter: their characters represent human life at its most insect, urban survivalists whose hallucinations become reality. These are loners beyond loneliness: “Not alone, but ‘lone,'” as one says. “There’s a difference. Question of choice.”

In “Home Tattoo,” John Harriman plays a hopped-up kid fantasizing about a Discovery Center class in home tattooing–he’s a depraved, twitchy punk taking complete delight in freaking us out. In “Love and Rockets,” one of the funniest of the evening’s pieces, an athletic Russ Page plays a young man discussing his sexual preference of solitude. Introduced to us with a recording of “You Go to My Head”–though “One Hand, One Heart” might have been a more apt selection–he recounts for us his daily ritual of walking through the world, collecting images in the camera of his brain, then returning home for a romantic dinner for one and a long, loving evening with the “ladies” in his brain and the fingers on his hand. A topic like compulsive masturbation, more likely to be the source for adolescent yuks in a late-night comedy revue, here is the foundation for a fascinating exploration of obsession and alienation.

Similarly, “Potted Plants and the Nice Young Man,” about a drunken middle-aged woman trying to pick up a nervous kid in a sleazy bar, starts out with subject matter that has been popping up in stand-up and improv comedy for who knows how long; but instead of another dirty old lady routine, Denise Berry delivers a skillfully shaped depiction of an emotional state that almost all of us have lived, at least in our daydreams. (John Harriman’s silent reactions as the “nice young man” Berry is hitting on are painfully funny too.) And in the evening’s closer, “K-4,” Katherine Chronis offers a perfect performance as a rock-club habitue snorting coke and touting her wide-ranging love life.

The funniest monologue in Pocket Theatre is also the most frightening: “Piece Through Strength,” in which a shirtless, muscular Joe Larocca takes on the persona of a bat-wielding street punk. A self-styled “army of one,” Larocca’s character Scabies is a study in constant motion–gesticulating hands and weaving torso perform a ritual ballet of threatening force as precise as an Indian Kathakali dancer’s moves. Fixing each member of the audience with a direct gaze that simply states the fact of his presence, Scabies explains his deeply held beliefs: “I take what I want . . . I fuck what I want.” No apologies, no forced anger, no strutting defiance–just this is it. It’s the most real–and yet the most theatrical–stage impersonation of a sociopath I’ve ever seen.

I’m not sure what the vignettes in Pocket Theatre add up to; maybe nothing. Larocca and Harriman aren’t trying to make a “statement,” except to say, this exists. But the individual images the actors create are indelible; they make you look at the world around you, and your reaction to it, in a newly aware way. That’s what the search for truth does.

A final word on this superb, invigorating, out-of-the-mainstream work: while the professional theater community in Chicago worries about how to attract new audiences through bigger boards and better marketing, Joe Larocca’s Main Line Productions is actually out on the street creating new audiences. This production is presented in the upstairs space at Club Dreamerz, a punk music bar in Wicker Park. The ticket is cheap, the atmosphere is casual, and the audience is young, attracted by the affordability and honesty of committed and original writing and performing. It’s an example that anyone concerned about the future of theater here should take note of.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Alexander Newberry.