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True Dreams of Annie Arbor
By Jack Helbig
Ten years ago Greg Allen put together the first Neo-Futurist show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. And umpteen Neo-Futurist shows later, I’m only a little bit closer to understanding what he means by “neofuturism” than I was then. Despite its name, neofuturism seems to have little in common with the original pre-World War I art movement beyond a shared fascination with speed and with creating short, shocking sketches (which Allen always, perversely, calls “plays”). Certainly Allen’s merry band of anarcho-artists have little in common politically with the Mussolini lovers who made up the original futurists.
What emerged from my early, frustrating discussions with Allen was an idea of what neofuturism wasn’t rather than what it was. The Neo-Futurists opposed the usual tricks of theater: they never pretended to be anywhere but on a stage talking with–or performing for–an audience. In the years when they performed late night on other people’s stages, it didn’t matter what set was behind them, a fake kitchen one week, a courtroom the next. And as you might expect from a show conceived during the post-crash 80s, Too Much Light could be enacted with few, if any, of theater’s usual tools. All it needs is a timer, a clothesline long enough to hold 30 pieces of paper, and a space about as long and wide as your average front hallway.
For a long time “neofuturism” seemed little more than a marketing device that set the company apart from all the theaters in the Bush era rushing forward into the comfortable past. Over time, however, it’s become clear that Allen has a consistent aesthetic, revealed as much in the new True Dreams of Annie Arbor as it is in the Neo-Futurists’ inaugural show. Allen loves pieces that are highly structured. Too Much Light has more rules than a board game: a roll of the die determines the cost of admission, audience members are given false names, performers put on 30 plays in 60 minutes, and when the show sells out they order out for pizza. Yet he also loves highly fragmented shows with a built-in potential for chaos, or at least bits of unexpected behavior. (In this respect the Neo-Futurists have a lot in common with the 60s Fluxus movement and the dadaists, both devoted to bringing life-giving chaos to societies too ordered for their own good.)
Allen’s 1996 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a case in point. In K. Allen shattered a fairly traditional narrative to tell Kafka’s very contemporary, nontraditional tale, reducing the work to a series of inconclusive shards and effectively capturing the paranoia and alienation of the original. In last spring’s Crime and Punishment: A (Mis)guided Environmental Tour With Literary Pretensions, Allen took this fragmentation even further. Based loosely on Dostoyevsky’s novel–and on a shelfload of other works related to crime, criminology, and the sociological, psychological, and philosophical underpinnings of guilt and the penal system–Crime and Punishment set the audience loose in the Neo-Futurarium. Like students in some futuristic Montessori school, audience members collaborated on all manner of “projects,” many of them involving other audience members, all of them related in some way to the evening’s theme.
The playful, mind-bending True Dreams of Annie Arbor is yet another fragmented, alienated work, though it’s not nearly as loose or interactive as Crime and Punishment. Indeed, John Roberts’s world premiere, directed by Allen, seems at first to be a traditional if Pinteresque family drama. A stiff, inflexible father comes to visit his son in a run-down hotel, where he’s clearly ill at ease both in the sleazy surroundings and in his son’s company. The father speaks in tight, clipped little sentences–“I see,” or “I’m going to the pot.”
But no sooner are we lulled by the first scene into thinking this is yet another naturalistic drama about dysfunctional families than Roberts begins messing with our minds. After a prostitute appears at the door demanding payment for services she claims to have rendered, Roberts shatters the story into dozens of dreamlike sequences with no clear chronological order. And like Jeffrey Jones’s Seventy Scenes of Halloween, which Allen directed in 1993, these shards may be part of a coherent whole or alternate versions of the central relationship. For example, the father, upon stepping into his son’s hotel room, comments in several scenes on the dreary surroundings. Likewise Roberts provides several answers to the son’s question, “Is this the kind of place where you can order room service?” In one scene, the hotel clerk roars with laughter when the son asks for room service. In another, the clerk snaps to attention and takes down the order, then reveals at the last minute that the menu features not food but call girls.
What makes this a thoroughly Neo-Futurist production, however, is the decision–by Roberts or Allen or both–to have only three actors play all the characters in this populous work, a “rule” that effects a dreamlike fluidity among the 15 characters. Thus David Kodeski plays the pot-bellied father, the protagonist’s fratboy brother, and a leering, violence-prone thug in a wig. Diana Slickman plays a prostitute, mom, the protagonist’s girlfriend, and even dad after a wasting disease. And Roberts himself plays the son and a pimp (though he’s curiously distant from his roles). This approach requires lots of quick costume changes; indeed, Allen refers in his bio to his stint as one of the “quick-change dressers” in Remains Theatre’s 1987 production of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, which requires two actors to play all the characters in a gothic drama. And there’s more than a little of Ludlam’s creative anarchy in this production’s quick changes.
But Allen is after much more than a laugh whenever an actor manages to exit, then fleetly enter through another door in a new set of clothes. The multiplication of roles allows him to draw parallels between characters we wouldn’t otherwise draw–for example, between the frat-boy brother’s aggressive, hostile joking and Dad’s barely audible grumbles of disapproval. Both are stubborn men suffering from a very masculine form of alienation from their feelings and the concomitant tendency to get stuck by whatever overwhelms or frightens them.
As you might expect from the antitheatrical Neo-Futurists, there isn’t much interest in having the characters disappear into their roles: despite Kodeski’s gifts as a performer, he always looks like David Kodeski, whether he’s wearing a rumpled suit, a silly wig, or a windbreaker and baseball cap. Similarly, though the show has a set–a bed, a nightstand, and two doors–we aren’t ever really transported beyond the confines of the Neo-Futurarium. If anything, Allen wants to short-circuit such flights of theatrical fancy; in the program he states bluntly, “The play takes place in the theater, on the set of a hotel room.”
Such aggressive antitheatricality only heightens the intellectual power and comedy of True Dreams of Annie Arbor, however, adding another level of subjectivity and conjecture to these fractured scenes. Does Slickman appear as both mom and a hooker because mom is a hooker? Or are we meant to think that hookers are as human as mom? Or that sick old dad doesn’t see much difference between a hooker and his wife? And late in the play the minimalist changes in the father, who almost imperceptibly opens up, are remarkably moving.
Neofuturism has always been more about raising questions than about providing answers–and even more about portraying multiple points of view. In this sense the Neo-Futurist aesthetic is more cubist than futurist, but it’s a contemporary form of cubism, one taking into account the fact that all the rules that Braque and Picasso were rebelling against are gone. Unfortunately the word “neocubism” is too square for what the Neo-Futurists do.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Jim Alexander Newberry.