Chicago Actors Ensemble
CHICAGO YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL
at Columbia College Getz Theater
Sometimes interesting, sometimes embarrassing, the Chicago Actors Ensemble production of Slawomir Mrozek’s Tango is a chaotic dance in which nobody quite knows the correct step. That is partly the playwright’s intention, as Tango explores how power can exert itself when rebellion turns into chaos (the play was written in in Poland in 1965). But there is more chaos in CAE’s Tango than the text can support.
Mrozek uses a family as a metaphor for Poland. It’s a fairly strange, bohemian family, similar to the Sycamores of You Can’t Take It With You but even stranger. This family clears away nothing: the grown son’s baby buggy is still taking up space, mama’s old wedding dress still lying across the couch. The father, Stomil, spends his life writing and performing avant-garde plays for the rest of the family (he calls them his “experiments”). The mother, Eleanor, is having an affair with Eddie, an absurdly simple proletarian; grandmother Eugenia is a fanatic cardplayer; and cousin Ala sees life as a chance to play sexual games.
In this merry clan, there are two dissenters. One is Uncle Eugene, who pretends to go along with the crowd but secretly longs for the good old days of old-fashioned values. And the biggest fly in the ointment is Arthur, Stomil and Eleanor’s college-educated son. Arthur can’t stand the way his family lives. “What’s going on in this house?” he shouts. “Chaos, anarchy, entropy!” He tells his family they are so hotheaded about breaking down value systems that they break them down without even knowing why anymore. This leaves him, the younger generation, with nothing to rebel against.
When pleading fails, Arthur organizes a coup with his uncle to reinstate the old values. He convinces cousin Ala to marry him (observing that in a traditional society he would be down on his knees in front of her), and plans a grand ceremony, complete with white gown and procession.
His plan works for a time. Everyone is forced back into traditional roles, and some even begin to like it. Eleanor admits that the only reason she rebelled in the first place was to please Stomil. But eventually, Arthur realizes the true emptiness of these traditions and throws them away as his family did before him. Still, he is convinced that there must be something better.
What he finds now is power and brute force. When he sets that social structure in place, Arthur discovers just how dangerous it can be. Even after Arthur is deposed, it survives, spelling tyranny and repression for all.
Mrozek’s family is an ill-disguised metaphor for Poland itself, a people with proud ideals who have let themselves go to seed, thus paving the way for the simple, often boorish common man. Tango also focuses on the artist’s place, in both a free society and one oppressed.
A lot is going on in this colorful and totally wild Chicago Actors Ensemble production. But directors Mary Derbyshire and Nancy Kresin have taken the politics out of Tango, and thus much of the meaning. They have layered the play with so much incomprehensible stuff about anarchy and entropy that their Tango is incoherent.
Derbyshire and Kresin have set Tango in a circus; the whole CAE space is a kind of carnival. It’s tons of fun to walk around in, and invites wonderfully strange choices by the actors, but these choices aren’t endowed with any particular truth. Instead, the characters can be dismissed as freaks and lunatics.
Derbyshire and Kresin add to the confusion with other odd choices of their own. Grandmother Eugenia, for instance, is played by a man, and Uncle Eugene is played by a woman. Just as baffling is a definite suggestion of The Addams Family that runs through the first act. And the directors should have taken more control over the costumes, which apparently were chosen by the cast. The actors run about in a nonsensical assortment of apparel. Eleanor even has a large rubber snake to whip around, for no reason that I could see.
The actors throw themselves into the fray with zeal and energy, though James Eldredge–who’s Arthur–seems a bit overwhelmed by the rest of the cast. However, only Eric Ronis, as Stomil, is consistently clear in his motivations. He slides with ease from bohemian pretension into honest emotion. Disturbed in the middle of the night by his son, he sashays down from his loft dressed in a bizarre saran-wrap frock and a large bonnet, speaking with a southern accent laced with Katharine Hepburn. His son pummels Stomil with information about his wife and Eddie, but Stomil refuses to be anything but the decadent artist–until it starts to hurt. He suddenly drops the act, takes off the ludicrous costume, and says in a natural voice, “I don’t want to know.”
All four winners in the Chicago Young Playwrights Festival show talent and individuality, though some make stronger statements than others. If there’s one thing that ties them all together, it’s an experimentation with form and structure.
Look Through the Footprints on the Wall by Andrew Bochantin and Eduardo Sciammarella and Rage Hard by Carrie Goodman are the more traditional in terms of content, both dealing with high school seniors preparing to go or not go to college. Footprints concerns a young artist’s relationship with his mother. He wants to get out in the world and live up to the potential that he knows he has. His mother loves him, but is frightened of being left alone, and so works to keep her boy with her. Although issues here are fairly standard, Bochantin and Sciammarella slip back and forth among alternate times and realities, keeping the final outcome ambiguous enough to allow the audience to decide for themselves what reality is true.
Rage Hard is a kind of Chicago version of Less Than Zero, with rich North Shore teenagers instead of rich Los Angeles ones. Jackie is no less fucked up than her friends but is more aware of the inanity of all their lives. The play is a fairly harsh condemnation of life in the northern suburbs. The end comes quickly and without enough foreshadowing, but Goodman creates interesting and frightening characters and relationships. Her scenes are short and numerous, interspersed with monologues delivered to the audience.
More of a comedy revue or an extended Saturday Night Live sketch than a play, The Times I Wish They Were a Changin’, by Ron Olson, gets heavily into political satire. Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon each gets a side of the stage to call his own and the chance to show he can create a better scandal than the other. Each president even gets his own song-and-dance number. It’s pretty silly, but fun, and certainly better than a lot of the comedy revues around town.
By far the most innovative of the four plays is Marvin McAllister’s I Got Hundred Dollar Gym Shoes. McAllister himself discusses his play’s themes beautifully in the program: “The play is about saying words wrong, but believing you’re saying them right; about assuming someone doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal, when it turns out they do. It’s about hearing a bum talking about Mies Van der Rohe and stopping to listen.”
Gym Shoes traces the journey of young, nerdy Felix through the south side as he learns about life. McAllister uses the Japanese device of the koken for changing scenes, distributing props, and creating furniture. In No and Kabuki theater, kokens are attendants dressed in black, whose presence onstage the audience is supposed to disregard.
All four plays are ably acted and directed. Particularly commendable are Donn Carl Harper as Leon in Gym Shoes, and Michael Irpino as Felix in the same play, as Jackie’s young friend Billy in Rage Hard, and as William Casey in The Times. Rick Reardon also does excellent work as a derelict in Gym Shoes and as the father in Rage Hard.