at the Athenaeum Theatre

500 Clown Frankenstein

500 Clown

at the Athenaeum Theatre

Chumpstrap: A Madras Parable and Refracting Rainbows

Curious Theatre Branch

at the Athenaeum Theatre

Want a peek at avant-garde heaven? The inaugural monthlong PAC/edge festival features some 15 full-scale productions, a healthy smattering of workshops, lectures, and installations, and even an open mike at which you might win the grand prize of $8. Of course, the fest would offer more than a glimpse of paradise if the artists were getting paid, or if Performing Arts Chicago had rented spaces less dreary than the Athenaeum’s sepulchral studios (then again, the bleak surroundings may be suitable to this fringe work). The Curious Theatre Branch’s Rhinoceros Theater Festival–an incubator for untried work–may be more important to the life of the avant-garde scene, but PAC/edge gives many of last year’s greatest hits–Plasticene’s The Palmer Raids, Lucky Pierre’s How to Manage Fear, David Kodeski’s I Can’t Explain the Beauty–well-deserved new leases on life. And fully half the festival’s anchor productions are world premieres, including Curious Theatre Branch’s Chumpstrap: A Madras Parable and Refracting Rainbows and 500 Clown’s 500 Clown Frankenstein. But the biggest gamble is the new DOG in its first piece ever, Interference. This playful, demanding, thrillingly hip conundrum–the most exciting debut since Lucky Pierre burst on the scene seven years ago–offers irrefutable proof of the fringe’s continued fertility.

To some extent DOG rose from the ashes of the late, great Cook County Theatre Department. Three of its members–actress Vicki Walden, set designer Jason Greenberg, and composer Dave Pavkovic–were part of that brain trust, and DOG’s extraordinarily talented director, Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, saw Cook County’s work in its waning days. Like that troupe, DOG eschews most theatrical conventions–character, scene, plot, and, some might argue, content–in favor of lyrically quotidian actions: corralling an errant office chair, speaking in awards-ceremony style into a vacuum nozzle, eating birdseed while perched on a clothesline. And the actors perform with Cook County’s trademark deadpan nonchalance, as though acting were a way to kill time until something interesting happens.

The troupe is equally influenced by Japan’s Dumb Type, a high-tech, defiantly antitheatrical collective that’s visited Chicago twice in recent years. Its influence is felt most immediately in Pavkovic’s sparse electronic score, which combines stripped-down club beats with piercing tones to create a menacing sonic cavern. It’s also apparent in Gary Ashwal’s coy video projections, which blur the line between live and prerecorded events. At one point an actress exits through an upstage door, and a moment later her head appears in a video projection of a window, as though she were watching us from backstage. Other times we see video of actors offstage drinking coffee, apparently bored to death, while an onstage performer attempts to deliver an important speech about God.

But whatever their influences, this ingeniously understated ensemble–which also includes John G. Connolly, Laura Grey, Tere Parkes, Lea Pinsky, and Jon Sherman–speak a beguiling, original, and highly cryptic theatrical language, and somehow manage to speak it fluently their first time around. The accomplishment is all the more impressive given the oddity of the goings-on: an unflappable customer-service agent is eager to deliver everything to everyone, a mousy woman tries to buy running shoes despite protests from her pushy boyfriend, a man in a cheesy bird costume aims to convince a frantic waif in shoulder pads she can fly, and a stone-faced woman spends most of the evening staring at everyone else.

It’s difficult to fathom what all this “means,” but like their colleagues in Goat Island and Lucky Pierre, the DOGs forgo meaning in favor of provocation, mystification and intrigue, fixing a Fluxus-like eye on the beauty of everyday human interaction. Wisely, Buxbaum Danzig avoids pretension by dramatizing the work’s opacity: the performers often seem bewildered, as if trying to make sense of the strange people around them. All the action–or, more accurately, nonaction–flows like carefully orchestrated music. And thanks to this superb ensemble’s exquisite clowning skills, everything’s done with abundant humor. Not since Cook County has emptiness been so entertaining; let’s hope this promising group offers even greater emptiness in the years ahead.

Fringe favorites 500 Clown offer their own brand of emptiness in 500 Clown Frankenstein, which opened to sellout crowds. Although this bumbling retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic tale is only the group’s second show–its first piece, 500 Clown Macbeth, was something of an underground smash in 2000–the three cast members, under the direction of Buxbaum Danzig and Dan Griffiths, perform with such synchronized nuance you’d swear they’d been working together for decades.

The premise is simple. Three incompetent, ill-prepared fools try to reenact Frankenstein despite a general unfamiliarity with the novel and almost no technical resources. When it comes time to piece together the creature, for example, they simply pile random objects–some of which they swipe from audience members–on a table in front of them. To make matters worse, the clowns barely get along and rarely agree on how the story should be presented. Endless petty skirmishes and full-scale insurrections prevent all but a few of the story’s images from making their way to the stage.

As the clowns, Adrian Danzig, Molly Brennan, and Paul Kalina are delightfully grotesque, dolled up in rapidly deteriorating costumes soaked with strategically placed bloodstains. Their generally edgy performances are enhanced by harrowing physical comedy that repeatedly brings the actors to the brink of injury. But while the group’s utter inability to retell Frankenstein is charming for a while, their haplessness wears thin about halfway through, when it becomes clear the novel is merely an excuse for clowning; with only minor adjustments, this could be 500 Clown Dracula or 500 Clown Count of Monte Cristo. When the piece finally degenerates into a 15-minute chase scene, it’s clear that everyone involved has run out of ideas.

After the bewildering demands of Interference and the audacious assault of 500 Clown Frankenstein, Curious Theatre Branch’s tender, straightforward Chumpstrap: A Madras Parable is a tonic. The fourth in a series of “parables” created since 1987 by Curious cofounders Jenny Magnus and Beau O’Reilly, it juxtaposes his relatively unadorned storytelling with her sly musical accompaniment. Poised amid the clutter of furniture wrapped Christo-style in canvas and rope, O’Reilly tells of his struggles to fit into two male enclaves: first as a kid alongside his older, more athletic, more “boylike” brothers Suds and Elbow, and second as an adult with a pair of fearless, hard-drinking professional movers, Johnny Moe and the Wheelman. Always the odd man out, O’Reilly can only approximate the coarse combativeness and rough-and-tumble grace of these worlds, which provide a male intimacy for which he longs.

An imposing figure known for his larger-than-life performances, O’Reilly here adopts a quiet, gentle persona that lends his uncharacteristically bare-bones stories a refreshing naivete. Magnus is perched throughout behind a snare drum stage right, accompanying herself as she sings occasionally about luckless men stumbling through life. Watching with empathic bemusement, she becomes a subtle comic foil to O’Reilly, as though at any moment she might shake her head and sigh, “Men.”

Chumpstrap is paired with a brief ensemble piece, Refracting Rainbows, created and performed by Marianne Fieber and KellyAnn Corcoran. While they talk and sing about the losses they’ve suffered–Fieber from a failed marriage, Corcoran from multiple deaths in her family–a choruslike trio of women play various incidental roles. Although fabric scattered around the stage makes the space look cluttered, the text is pared to the barest essentials. As a result some sections feel sketchy, but others have a poetic resonance, as when Fieber recites a long string of words chronicling the entire course of her two-year marriage. The snapshot structure makes it difficult to empathize with either woman’s story, but that may be the point: grief is so private that the best we can do is view one another’s travails from a safe, impersonal distance.

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