THE COLLAPSIBLE DETACHABLE SELF-CLEANING UNIVERSE SHOW
at the Neo-Futurarium, through May 8
A little more than a year ago the Warm Body Theater burst on the scene with Every Speck of Dust That Falls to Earth Really Does Make the Whole Planet Heavier, an eclectic mix of monologues, topical sketches, and overtly political performance pieces. The show ran for three editions–it was updated every six weeks or so to keep the ’92 election jokes fresh–before the company fell apart, a victim of dissension within the ranks, the loss of its original performance space, and the abrupt departure of Warm Body cofounder Dave Awl.
Out of the ashes of Warm Body comes Spin 1/2 “performance conflux.” Started by Awl and featuring the work of a number of performers who appeared in Every Speck of Dust, Spin 1/2 is a collection of writers, performance poets, actors, and musicians now performing their first effort, The Collapsible Detachable Self-Cleaning Universe Show, at the Neo-Futurarium. Described as an “electric shadow poem,” it’s an ambitious but only partly successful show that attempts again and again, throughout 19 monologues and performance pieces, to say something original and profound about the universe and the people in it.
Sometimes these armchair metaphysical excursions lead to interesting observations, as in the opening group piece when one performer notes, “The map is not the territory,” and another echoes Kant by observing: “When we think we are understanding the nature of the universe, we are understanding the nature of the mind.” Just as often, however, these attempts at profundity sound as silly as the stoned conversations in Animal House. Awl pointedly notes that scientists believe there are “100 billion neurons” in the brain and “100 billion stars” in the sky, and then lets the observation hang portentously in the air. At another point Michael Crowl says, “Everything is energy. And reality is just emptiness and form. Life is not a noun. Life is a verb. The universe is energy. The rocks are energy.” He’s never able to explain, however, why all this talk about energy is so draining.
The performers seem far more surefooted when they’re performing less philosophical material and venturing into comedy, satire, whimsy, or autobiography. Jeff Seasholtz, for example, really shines in the comical “What I Learned in Science Class,” in which he reveals that he remembers more about the trivia of his education (he even does a killing imitation of the warbling sound a poorly threaded projector makes–“The-ee-se mi-i-i-ighty-ty gi-i-ants ru-ru-ruled the-the ear-r-th”) than any actual content. The closest he comes to recalling any scientific facts is the observation: “Universe big, Jeff small.”
This observation also serves as the theme in one of the more beautiful moments in the show: Awl’s evocative poem “Staring at Orion’s Left Foot,” in which this accomplished performance poet perfectly expresses that beatific emptiness one feels staring up into the star-filled sky on clear midwestern winter nights. In a similar vein are two autobiographical monologues, Kathleen Puls’s “Test Patterns,” a moving story about a friend’s psychotic episode, and Paul Gerard’s “Blue Ice,” a tragicomic meditation on the constant possibility of death, which he wraps in a reminiscence about the time he nearly killed himself playing Russian roulette with a loaded starting pistol. Both these pieces are performed with a polish and self-assurance often missing from Every Speck of Dust.
In fact, in almost every way this is a superior show. The performance level is higher. Gone is that what-the-hell high-school-variety-show demeanor that sunk more than a few of Every Speck’s later efforts. Gone, too, is the arrogant know-it-all attitude. Even when the performers in Universe are trying to come up with a working definition of the universe, followed by three examples (as when Tony Rago, in Bob Laine’s “Observer’s Notebook,” lists all he “knows” about human life: “We’re born, we die, we’re happy, we’re sad”), they remind us more of that ever-earnest seeker Dobie Gillis than of some unctuous blowhard attempting to defeat us with his superior intellect.
Plus this show has a house rock band, King Spill, that provides various musical interludes and sound effects. And as performers as different as the Moody Blues, the Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson have proved, even the most bogus moment of gaseous pseudo-profundity sounds great with music.