No No, I Was Sleeping You Know

Lucky Pierre, through April 27

By Justin Hayford

Let me tell you where you need to be this weekend: at the corner of Fulton and Damen, in the middle of a neighborhood of windowless brick buildings and vacant lots. There, on the second floor of an old industrial space, you’ll wind your way through a maze of artists’ studios, following a yellow crime-scene tape, until you enter a cavelike room. Once upon a time it was the dyeing room of a scarf factory. Now it’s full of gray metal folding chairs in neat rows, its shocking white bricks and floorboards given a surreal twist by a cellophane ceiling and a series of doors built into the walls three feet above the floor. In this unlikely incubator, you’ll witness the birth of something marvelous.

In its debut performance Lucky Pierre has hit the ground running, proceeding with sure steps through a slippery evening, taking its place at the right hand of one of Chicago’s most influential and benevolent performance goddesses, Lin Hixson of Goat Island. At her left hand sits the Cook County Theater Department, and scrunched in there somewhere is Doorika. All four groups share a love of textual non sequiturs and physical absurdity. You’re likely to see these performers scuttling across the floor on their stomachs, reading instruction manuals, shoving their fingers down one another’s throats, or rolling across the ceiling in ski boots–and in so doing making you want to cry at the inexplicable beauty. Fundamentally, all four groups build pieces out of mundane, poetic tasks. Like their spiritual counterparts the Neo-Futurists, they don’t do much acting, at least not in the conventional sense: people pretending to be someone else somewhere they’re not. Instead you’ll find people doing real, unfakeable tasks–filing papers, submerging their heads in tanks of water, giving each other rides on a rolling sofa, describing the lights above their heads–and in the process unlocking the transcendence of the actual.

In short, these groups have little interest in hiding anything–an approach in stark contrast to conventional Western theater, which conceals most of the performance: the lights, the wiring, the fly system, the tech booth, the dressing rooms, and all the props, set pieces, costumes, and actors not currently “in scene.” Of course concealment can produce its own magic, creating the illusion that reality is fully present before us. We may suddenly find ourselves on a turn-of-the-century Russian estate waiting for a cherry orchard to bite the dust, and nothing else exists for us during those three sacred hours. But that concealment masks theater artists’ fundamental, generally unacknowledged ambivalence about the live act. They rehearse and rehearse until a once-spontaneous portrayal becomes codified–and at times nearly mechanical. An actor once confessed to me that he practices his lines over and over again by himself until they sound just right. Such actors may as well videotape themselves at the final dress rehearsal and place a video monitor onstage in their stead for the run of the show. As producers grow more eager to dazzle audiences with technological displays, and critics willfully indulge rather than artfully question such inartistic excess, human beings become incidental. We may as well be in the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland, watching well-disguised circuitry pay programmed lip service to the notion of individual dignity.

Lucky Pierre reminds us why we attend live performance: to watch something happen that can never be duplicated, to see and hear the truth, and to be reassured that it retains the power to thrill. In No No, I Was Sleeping You Know, the performers never lie. They read lists, sing songs, shoot squirt guns, strike neoclassical poses before fluorescent lights–without ever assuming characters or even personas. They’re just people, going through their mysterious motions.

Before the piece starts we walk in on the four performers–Vince Darmody, Noah Loesberg, Michael Thomas, and Mary Zerkel–in the middle of the most actual of events: they’re sitting at a long brown table eating dinner. (Not, mind you, “acting like” they’re eating dinner–that performative oxymoron you see every time an actor lights up a cigarette onstage and then pretends to do the very thing he’s actually doing.) From tribal rites to medieval pageants to contemporary dinner theater, food and performance are rarely far apart, but here the gesture devolves into an antitheatrical prank. Watching other people eat is about the last thing we’ll shell out five bucks to do. (A few years back Meatballs Fluxus took the affront a step further, eating a full-course meal under a huge white sheet and charging seven bucks to watch.)

Still, this is an apt introduction to a decidedly antitheatrical piece. As the Lucky Pierre performers eat, they chat with one another, laugh, say hello to friends in the audience, offer us wine. They’re instantly likable, and not just because they share their booze. It’s clear we’re in good hands with these gracious, welcoming, good-natured, and, perhaps most important, unpretentious people.

For an hour this four-person deadpan drill team executes enigmatic, inane, meticulously choreographed routines. They first recite a transcribed scene from Cops, in which an officer questions a handcuffed woman about her husband’s stab wounds. The words suggest a horribly private yet sensationally lurid situation. This haunting, tawdry text comes and goes during the evening, at times the lines splintered and shared among all the performers, who recite overlapping fragments as though singing madrigals.

Lucky Pierre’s manipulation of psychological time gives the piece its ebb and flow. Repeating the Cops lines seems to edit and reedit a few seconds of time, as though a divine machine were picking through a moment in human history, backing it up, and running it again, looking for some overlooked but telling detail. Other routines seem to bring time to a standstill. At one point the performers sit motionless with their hands held a few inches above the table for several minutes. Then they repeatedly curl and uncurl their fingers in slow unison, their hands bursting into bloom again and again.

One question hovers over the entire evening: can the out-of-context reiteration of transcribed cultural documents–a psychology textbook, a Jerome Kern song, a Hollywood film, a television show–ever re-create the experience those documents originally sought to capture or produce? Throughout the evening the performers offer quotations from Easy Rider, “Just the Way You Look Tonight,” Principles of Psychology, and of course Cops, but no matter how poignant or passionate the text it’s spoken matter-of-factly, like a court transcript. The performers repeat phrases again and again, as though asking, Does it belong here?

Is it real now? Is it meaningful? The Cops episode in particular causes them no end of trouble, since they’re quoting from a source that purports to depict reality but is in fact a highly orchestrated imitation.

Sure, the maddening confusion of the “genuine simulacra” is by now old hat. But Lucky Pierre doesn’t stop here. They counter pervasive simulationism (for lack of a better word) with action: the pure, unmediated event. When they curl and uncurl their fingers, twist with reckless abandon atop the table, spit water in one another’s faces, or gasp in unison, they imitate nothing–rather they create ex nihilo. These gestures have no antecedent but simply color the lived present.

In glaring contrast is the slide projected on a screen during the last third of the piece: “Corel photodisk image number IA2306: ‘American Landscape.'” The photograph shows a prototypical midwestern farm-house atop a field and surrounded by a well-groomed copse. This authentic picture (it is, after all, a real place) mimics a generic, idyllic American landscape that exists more in our collective cultural mythology than in reality. The image stands in for an America we nostalgically refuse to stop believing in, miring us in a past that never existed.

All Lucky Pierre wants to believe in is the present. They strive to create a fully realized moment and to sustain that fleeting instant for as long as possible. This idea reaches its apotheosis during the final section. While the American landscape looms stage left, three of the performers seat themselves behind the table, on which one of them places a single microphone; they look as though they’re about to give congressional testimony. The fourth performer sits downstage in the dark and questions the others, asking them to show him pictures–of their families, their pets, their homes, their wants. No matter what the question, the three hold up black-and-white photocopies of the American landscape image, and then pictures of food. But when asked how long the present lasts, they agree and give an appropriate answer: “Three to 12 seconds.” And then, in the evening’s simplest and most resonant moment, one of the testifiers counts off 12 seconds, stretching them into perhaps 15 in the process. Any length of time can be sustained as the present, Lucky Pierre seems to suggest, so long as we come together and make it count.

In the final analysis, as the universe winds down toward its inevitable, unremarkable end, what more do we have than 12 seconds together? And what more could we ask of those 12 seconds than that they be filled with joy, mystery, intelligence, and wit, as are all 3,600 seconds of No No, I Was Sleeping You Know? Art, a friend once said, is the way we remember we exist. Lucky Pierre brings mere existence fully to life, however briefly. In the age of faux this, virtual that, and cyber everything, they offer us what we can’t help but long for: the real thing.