Trilogy Productions

at Victory Gardens Studio Theatre

The Collage Project is made up of three one-act plays by Jeff Helgeson. It wants very much to be more than that. It’s a thoughtful effort, but the final product is less than the sum of its parts. Despite the solid performances here, some fine writing, and some decent art on the walls, Collage doesn’t have enough substance to make it whole.

The program offers the first clue as to how much this work has been pondered, analyzed, and processed: every cover has its own individual collage, and the thick program includes a quote from James Joyce, program notes by three different writers, a poem by Marc Smith, a xeroxed collage centerfold, and an earnest description of all this as “a collection of one-act plays within a context of related works.”

Nine visual artists have displayed their works in the theater space itself. But we’re given little opportunity to look at these, to discover their relationship to Helgeson’s ideas. Moreover, the works are often hung above eye level and between rows of seats, so that one would have to literally crawl over the audience to see them (no one did). Only the neon sculpture plays a role on the stage, or has any discernible correlation with the script.

The program also provides this definition of collage: “an abstract composition using various materials with lines and colors supplied by the artist.” But the overall sense from this composition is that the finished product, The Collage Project, is less important than the act of making it something akin to what Francis Picabia did when he made drawings that Andre Breton erased as Picabia went along.

The plays themselves seem more like beginnings than completed efforts. In the first one, In His Own Image, Helgeson uses a stripped-down approach to cover a yearlong adolescent romance. He wastes no time, distilling the tale to its essence. Unfortunately, it’s a technique that renders the story rather flat.

In His Own Image is about a swaggering young man from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with an innocent girl. By the time their affair is over, he’s matured and she’s dumped him for a trip to Europe, where she becomes Don Juanita. This is the classic tale about the nice Catholic girl, who goes bad, complete with church scenes and organ music. Sex liberates our young hero, who is redeemed by love, but it morally corrupts the equally young virgin.

But the zenith of reactionaryism is reached when the boy, after learning of the girl’s abortion, screams out, “You killed our baby!” Helgeson, having chosen to tell this story, might have done better to keep writing, instead of putting the final period on the boy’s broken heart. There might have been a greater moment, a truer emotion, a little further down the line.

Sins of the Father, which reduces the players from three to two, involves a drunken, doped-up conversation between two longtime male friends. John Brown plays a disturbing A.C., a hypermacho restaurateur who wraps his cocaine in shots of vaginas cut out from Hustler magazine. A.C. is successful, boastful, profane, and willful. His buddy Pat is less obviously a star, but more appreciative of the truth.

The two both had lousy relationships with their fathers; they also share a secret. In the process of tying up these two threads, Helgeson gives Brown and Scott C. Smith, who plays Pat with a wonderful understatement, some of the best lines of the night. For a while the conversation is complex and cryptic, and the possibilities are exciting. But by the time A.C. picks up one of his kids’ toys and reflects, the secret they’re about to reveal has already become apparent, and the punch line–that the kids will find out–is easily anticipated.

Again, it might have been better for Helgeson to use this revelation as a beginning. It might have been more involving to follow these two after they confront their feelings, and confront their children. And again, Helgeson shows an unfortunate reactionary touch: the men’s “problem” is presented as a simple response to childhood deprivations, and its manifestation is conceived as a shame for the next generation to bear.

Fall From Grace ends the evening. This dense monologue, performed by William Graham Cole, offers us a retired Bauhaus architect who sees his personal life as a failure. This is, perhaps, an apology for modernism, or maybe a renunciation of it. The monologue is filled with allusions, name dropping, and glib observations, but it never quite rings true. There is little movement, and because the monologue is presented as a conversation the man is having with himself, some of it spoken and some recorded, part of the time he just sits there listening to the recording. And the technology at the Studio Theatre is barely adequate. There are distracting hums and clicks throughout the play’s more than 15 minutes, making it nearly impossible to give it our full attention.