The Strange

Curious Theatre Branch

Man to Man

Rhino in Winter

at the Lunar Cabaret

By Justin Hayford

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Rhinoceros festivals to the Chicago performance scene. They don’t draw huge crowds, produce big hits, generate major revenue, or attract celebrities, the typical indicators in our culture of a theater’s worth. But the festivals go a long way toward keeping an extraordinary corps of fringe artists energized in a political economy that banishes them to near irrelevance. They gather twice a year–once in summer and once for this fest, the Rhino in Winter–in ever evolving combinations to work out their theatrical kinks. A new generation of artists learns from those who helped put Chicago’s performance world on the map, as seasoned innovators like Jeff Dorchen, Lawrence Steger, and Jenny Magnus experiment alongside neophytes like Amanda Clower and Anne Van der Vort. The fest is all about risk taking, form bending, and brain stoking. By definition it will produce disasters as well as triumphs–and few opportunities are more valuable to an artistic community than a safe place to fail.

Jenny Magnus’s new play, The Strange, epitomizes the kind of intelligent, demanding, mind-overhauling work the Rhino fests are famous for. Still struggling to emerge from the weight of overwriting, this is a play with a problem Magnus seems to have identified already: as the piece progresses, she strips it down to an essence, delivering a sobering punch.

As many of her Curious Theatre Branch cohorts and she herself have done in the past, Magnus begins with an ethically charged question–can we share our darkest impulses with others, or are we solely responsible for our own ugliness?–and creates an unstable environment in which overworked minds labor through it. The minds here belong to two unnamed characters, a desperate, self-loathing woman (Magnus) and a psychologically insightful young girl (Amy Warren). They meet when the woman stumbles drunk into the girl’s bedroom in the middle of the night. Neither knows the other. Perhaps the woman is a guest of the girl’s parents, but Magnus intentionally obscures the events leading to this unlikely encounter. From a conventional standpoint, this ambiguity would be bad playwriting; most authors would spend their first ten minutes trying to shore up the logic behind the meeting. But illogic–or at least randomness–is part of the effect of estrangement Magnus is after, as two characters clinging to the precipice of sleep try to make sense of their predicament right along with the audience.

The woman has wet herself, but when the girl attempts to ease the adult’s embarrassment, the woman unleashes a torrent of cynical bombast, declaring that she has no interest in being nice. Soon the woman climbs into the girl’s tiny bed, lying there like a pile of bones dropped from a great height. The girl scrambles out of the way, stands across the room staring at the intruder during an excruciating silence, then whispers, “You’re ugly.” She seems to be searching for her voice, trying to find her own authority. “I’m not impressed by you,” she insists.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, the woman blasts holes in every bit of optimism the girl possesses. The woman has stripped away all external sources of pain in her life, she explains, yet the pain persists, leading her to conclude that she is her pain. And when the girl clutches her belief that life can change for the better, the woman swats her idealism aside as though it were a dazed fly. Years of experience and observation, both of which the girl lack, have taught the woman that life is misery. To drive her point home, she pins the girl against the mattress and howls into her face, “Sometimes you fuck things up beyond repair.”

The scene has a devastating cumulative effect, operating in much the way David Mamet’s The Cryptogram does to dramatize the brutal end to innocence. But Magnus goes the long way around to achieve this result. For much of the scene, the characters make fine intellectual distinctions–for example, they try to articulate the difference between wanting to want and needing to want. At first this approach gives the scene an eccentric humor; it even drives the woman to explain three times that she pissed herself. But after a while the debate between the characters tends to flatten rather than enhance the drama, putting too much of the play’s subtext on the surface. The woman’s cynicism is laid out schematically, which forces the girl to respond in kind and turns the scene into an outline of undramatized conflict. The audience isn’t given much to wonder about; what’s missing is the dramatic power of miscommunication.

Yet this power is precisely what fuels the play’s remaining scenes, as the two characters recollide in subsequent late-night encounters in the same bedroom, the girl now tortured by the cynical thoughts the woman has implanted. Half-formed sentences and ambiguous impulses begin to take over the play, giving it a mesmerizing undercurrent. Rather than debating with each other, the characters begin to wrestle with themselves. Once simple opposites, they meld together in revelatory ways. The play is no longer a simple cautionary tale about a young girl’s lost innocence but a rich fable about the necessity of living with one’s worst self, even when doing so produces crushing despair.

Throughout Magnus maintains her unapologetic vision, keeping her characters balanced on the brink of hopelessness. Under Eric Ziegenhagen’s direction, the actors focus with a pure, laserlike intensity. Magnus performs with a blunt frankness perfect for a woman oblivious to the powerful effect she has on the people around her. Warren, normally a highly technical actress, here lets unnameable urges fling her through the play in a harrowing performance. Yet she never veers into hysterics, and her every choice moves the play forward.

The Strange is a hard play to leave behind, for it resonates from the shadowy recesses of the psyche. The world these artists create has the kind of towering hyperreality we experience only at three o’clock in the morning–upon awakening in a cold sweat.

Mark Guarino’s evening of one-acts, “Man to Man,” seems out of place in the Rhino festival, feeling more like 30-year-old avant-garde theater than anything contemporary. In The Cool Down, two baseball buddies, one gay and one straight, lounge in patio furniture after a rough game and grope toward expressing a nonsexual intimacy. Despite serviceable performances from Wellesley Chapman and Johnny Lancaster, Guarino’s clipped, poetic lines are too contrived to shed much light on the characters. The actors spend most of their time trying to find a way to make their dialogue sound natural. In the play’s climactic moment, the straight friend makes the grand confession that he’s sickened at the thought of his gay friend having sex with another man, then both men shuffle off glumly. Maybe such a revelation would wow ’em in Schaumburg, but in the big city it falls flat.

Guarino’s other play, When/What, is even more contrived and stilted, as two men who call each other Alphonse and Carl (though they’re identified in the program as A and B) wait at a bus stop for no discernible reason. Now and again Alphonse threatens to take a walk to a Laundromat, until he discovers he can’t take a step–although he paces around the stage just fine. Carl says that, since leaving rural Wisconsin, he’s learned to hear his heart. Guarino seems to want to say something more about male intimacy in this second play, but given its cryptic dialogue, I can’t fathom what it is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Strange theater still by Christopher Dimock.