Absolute Truth

at Puszh Studios

The Absolute Truth looks great on paper. For each performance a five-person ensemble creates an original theater piece based on that day’s Chicago Tribune. Not only would the performers have to be quick-witted and politically savvy, they’d need a highly sophisticated sense of irony. Imagine equating the Tribune with “absolute truth.”

Such high expectations were initially confirmed. Upon arriving at the cabaret-style performance space, each audience member was handed a section from the Tribune instead of a program and told to become familiar with it before the show started. My friends and I dove into the task, eager to absorb the nuances behind the headlines. With the remarkable events unfolding in the Soviet Union, and the discovery that Richard III may have suffered from idiopathic pituitary dwarfism, the theatrical possibilities seemed limitless.

The show’s opening moment offers another potential level of sophistication, this time unexpected. Instead of simply presenting prepared scenes, the cast ask the audience to identify news items that have captured their attention in reading through the paper. From these suggestions they will create improvised scenes exploring these bits of news. Not only is the show to be created spontaneously, but the cast imply they’re familiar with all the news of the day.

Despite such high expectations–and perhaps to some extent because of them–I was enormously disappointed by this show. The Absolute Truth does not confront or explore the news or the mechanisms that deliver the news to us. It’s simply a series of superficial improv comedy sketches. And haphazardly executed sketches at that.

Two scenes illustrate the fundamental problems with the show. When an audience member suggested Richard III’s dwarfism as the basis for a scene, the ensemble created a “video.” An announcer (Drew Antzis) invited us to watch a videotape about Richard III. King Richard (K. Scott Coopwood) enters, with his queen (Aliza Shalowitz) lurking evilly behind him. Richard, apparently as an expression of his limitless power, wants to chop down all the trees on his land. The queen protests and eventually poisons him. Voices for these characters are “dubbed” by the other two members of the company (Alex Baze and Peter Murrieta), who sit at the front of the audience and watch the scene.

It’s a clever technique, but the scene it supports rapidly degenerates into nonsense. Not only does it have nothing to do with the historical or literary King Richard III (when did Anne become evil, and why on earth is Richard obsessed with chopping down trees?), but it has nothing to do with the actual news item, which quotes a variety of “experts” arguing about whether or not Richard was a dwarf. Talk about a great scene! It might as well have been handed to them on a silver platter.

They were handed a second scene on yet another silver platter: an audience member mentioned reading about Mikhail Gorbachev dolls. Given the nearly melodramatic nature of the Soviet coup (at least as it has been presented by the media) and the recent musings as to whether Gorbachev might have staged the coup himself, there could not have been a better theatrical device for exploring these issues than a Gorbachev doll.

The scene actually presented showed a young girl (Shalowitz) unwrapping her new Raisa doll (Murietta), which says things like “Gorby!” and “I need to pee!” when it’s wound up. The father (Coopwood) uses this doll to teach his son (Antzis) to stop idealizing imaginary people, like Ken and Barbie, and instead idealize real people, like Raisa.

This scene might have been funny if it was well executed. But why sidestep the real meat of the current political situation? Possibly these performers simply aren’t familiar with the current political situation. For example, the father in the scene referred to Gorbachev as the president of Russia. As most of us know, Boris Yeltsin is the president of Russia, a rather critical distinction at this moment in history.

This scene also demonstrated a lack of ensemble sensibility. Actors often stepped on each other’s lines or stood hesitantly, trying to think of something to say. Though Coopwood referred to Shalowitz as his daughter, she kept calling him her uncle. These actors weren’t even listening to each other.

The second act uses different tactics, presenting scripted scenes based on news items from an issue of the fictional Chicago Today dated November 6, 1999. This mock-up is handed out during the break between the acts, and has stories about the closing of the last public school, the 31.5 percent unemployment rate, the disappearance of the Democratic Party, and the merger of the Arizona Bureau of Tourism with the Henderson Family of Companies. The subsequent scenes “explore” these issues with the same frustrating superficiality as in the first act.

Throughout the second act, the quasi-fascist state presented as America in 1999 is blamed on the demise of the Democratic Party. For example, an “official” at a bank says to his disgruntled customer, “Why do you want to bring the Democrats back? Aren’t you happy with the current political system?” Statements like this demonstrate the group’s naivete. If we’re talking about a political system, the Democrats and Republicans are all part of the same system–they’re interchangeable.

Perhaps the Absolute Truth should read the paper more often.