Theater Oobleck

Somalia is that unlucky nation on the eastern coast of Africa that has been a hellhole of drought, starvation, war, disease, you name it, as long as anyone can remember. They have one doctor for about every 26,000 people. Somalia is a bad place to be born, but a likely enough place to die. You’d almost imagine that it would be an unlikely subject for a musical, that is, if such musicals hadn’t become commonplace.

But I wouldn’t call Somalia, Etcetera a musical, although it has its share of bad music. I wouldn’t call it a satire either, although it has pretensions. It also has ambitions of being some kind of anarchist political statement–about sex, politics, religion, history, and especially theater. But the more I think about it, the less it has to say. It certainly doesn’t say anything of value about Somalia. It only uses Somalia as a context for an embarrassing display of political narcissism. Because Somalia, Etcetera is about nothing so much as Theater Oobleck itself–a chance for its members to affect the posture of the radical, renegade social commentators they think they are. This show–rather, this display–is far too precious. Oobleck doesn’t need an audience here. They just need more friends, or maybe a laugh track.

The setting of Somalia, Etcetera wanders about in space and time with less of a purpose than the vague idea of filling the stage for three hours. Yet time and again the focus returns to the “Radical Feminists’ Caucus of Somalia,” where Spike, Malodorous, and Worm (played by Barbara Thorne, Lisa Black, and Sarah Brown) plot to free Somali women from the shackles of, well, you know, those shackles that women have to wear. Spike is the long-winded theorist, Worm the woman of action, and Malodorous the ditzy heterosexual. The major efforts of this caucus are rhetorical. They talk about Marxism and how it doesn’t meet feminist demands, and capitalism, and more of the same, and the Sunni Moslem religion, and more of the same. Every now and then the rhetoric is punctuated by a gunshot, as Malodorous blows off another finger, punishing herself for some imagined crime against “scientific socialism.”

Then, President Siad Barre has ten Islamic mullahs arrested for antifeminist statements, and the women’s caucus springs into action. After much debate they decide that the best way to capitalize on this event is to stage a play in the courtroom at the mullahs’ trial. The play, by an 18th-century Frenchman, is set in fictional La Colonie, and it illustrates a struggle by women to gain equal legislative power with men. Spike’s lesbian ex-lover (played by Wylie Goodman), who happens to be both prosecutor and defense attorney in the case, talks the judge into going along with the play. The only problem is finding men to play the men’s roles, and a Russian adviser, a Somali soldier, and a defendant (who knows what happened to the other nine mullahs) are drafted.

In the end, the mullah (played by Danny Thompson) is sentenced to death. The outcome, or even the entire plot of this play, isn’t of much importance. More important, apparently, are the various political conceits with which the performers array themselves.

Judging from this and its last production, Laugh, Red Medusa, Laugh Laugh, Oobleck is bullish on radical lesbian feminism. And if the unconvincing female performances in both productions are any clue, this constitutes more of a political affiliation than an overt sexual preference. Which makes the female Ooblecks look like wannabe lesbians, and awkward ones at that. No doubt Theater Oobleck could resolve much of their cognitive-associative dissonance concerning feminism if they’d just decide once and for all whether or not heterosexual intercourse is an essentially violent act. That would save us all a lot of time.

Anarchy is Oobleck’s other major preoccupation, and Somalia, Etcetera manifests it as satires of a number of political and religious leaders including Benazir Bhutto, Muhammad, Siad Barre, and the Korean opposition candidates, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung. Unfortunately, most of these satires are ignorant cheap shots. The scene with Muhammad is set in 700 AD, 68 years after he died, and portrays him as an arrogant camel jockey concerned primarily with the domination of women. Perhaps the funniest parts of the play, however, are the digressions to South Korea, where the opposition candidates work out in boxing shorts with their “handlers,” and affect a variety of electable poses.

Oobleck prides itself on working without a director, and this too, no doubt, has something to do with anarchy. They surely can’t be faulted for this practice since, as any actor could tell you, no director is better than nine out of ten directors in the business. But in this case it’s a moot point. What Somalia, Etcetera really needs is an editor. David Isaacson’s script, written with the company, is bloated and redundant. Half the scenes are either dreadfully inert or easily expendable. What do the South Korean scenes, however funny they may be, have to do with Somalia? For that matter, what does this whole play have to do with Somalia? How many times is it necessary to cover the same ground about how incompatible religious and political systems are with the feminist movement? The problem here isn’t production, but conception. And, at the conceptual level, Oobleck’s anarchy translates as myopia and sloppiness.

Performances range from the briefly brilliant to the hugely tiresome. Two of Oobleck’s major talents, Jeff Dorchen and Randy Herman, are missing this time around, although Mickle Maher (as the Soviet adviser) and Lisa Black (as Malodorous) brighten up the production in minor roles. Terri Kapsalis, David Isaacson, and Danny Thompson also have some inspired bits. If nothing else, I’ll always remember Todd Toussaint running across the stage during the crowd scenes, shouting “Two arms! Two arms!” as if he just discovered them hanging from his shoulders. Silly stuff–wonderfully silly–is scattered here and there, but not enough, and after three hours of sophomoric politics, you lose your sense of humor.

Several productions ago, Oobleck threatened to be the most intelligent new theater company in Chicago. I don’t see that now. In Somalia, Etcetera, Oobleck is a parody of itself–a bunch of middle-class white kids (except for Allan Louis, who’s black and wasted in two very small token roles) dressing down for the revolution. They’re more concerned with how they look than what they do. There’s even a song where, in effect, they apologize for being white. It’s humiliating, or would be, if they were critical of themselves enough to realize it. But they don’t seem to have a clue.

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