Chicago Actors Ensemble


Zymotic Stagecoach

at the Chicago Actors Ensemble

The Gas Heart, a Dadaist play by Tristan Tzara, is the kind of art that’s meant to bug people. Back in 1917, when it was first staged, Tzara billed it as “the only and greatest three-act hoax of the century.” Seventy-five years later, this version by the Chicago Actors Ensemble is still pretty much a hoax. Because fundamentally The Gas Heart is meaningless. That’s the point–point-blank.

It isn’t a hoax like an April fool joke that makes you feel like a good- natured idiot. It’s more insidious than that. Somehow, through the utter meaninglessness created by the juxtaposition of unrelated words, sounds, and images, life itself–not the play–is meant to seem a big hoax.

The Gas Heart is broken into three acts, and during the first intermission all the performers here dance with audience members. During the second intermission, they go out into the lobby and fight. It’s all planned, so I guess really there is no intermission. The Gas Heart is really a nonplay. It’s nonentertainment that begins and ends in a nonway.

At the beginning a group of people are chatting and watching TV in a cubbyhole behind the audience. They’re so low-key the audience barely realizes they’re there. Onstage is a long table with lighting and sound equipment on it and about 40 wires running up to the ceiling. Rick Helweg, who plays the Gas Heart, walks on and sits at the table. He flicks a switch, and the first words of Prince’s song “1999” come through the speaker. “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you. I just want you to have fun,” Helweg says. He plays the first few seconds of the song then cuts it off abruptly.

The stage lights are turned off except for a single blue light glowing on the table. Everyone leaves the cubbyhole except for David Thibodeaux, as Eye, wearing a big white balloon with a pupil drawn on it attached to his hat. He watches TV for a while. Then he barks out, “Statues!” Pause. “Jewels!” Pause. “Roasts!” This is repeated about three times.

Laura Hamilton as Mouth comes onstage, wearing a tightly fitted red satin floor-length evening gown. “The conversation is lagging, isn’t it?” she asks. “Yes, isn’t it,” Eye responds. “Obviously. Isn’t it.” This exchange flies back and forth over the audience’s heads for about a minute. Then it’s replaced by another bit of nonsensical dialogue.

So it goes. A lot of the dialogue sounds like Gertrude Stein. But Stein creates an odd beauty that doesn’t exist in this play. The Gas Heart is harsh. Sometimes it’s funny, but more often it’s just odd in a deliberately mind-boggling way.

Dada grew up in part as a knee-jerk response to the ugly absurdities of World War I. Back when Dadaism was alive and kicking in Zurich and Paris, a typical performance could provoke a riot. No joke. It riled people that much. The Gas Heart still retains a bit of that power. However, I could never imagine it inciting a riot up there on the fifth floor of the Preston Bradley Community Center. Quite simply, times have changed. And even though director Helweg has updated the piece with contemporary references, it still doesn’t feel like a true response to the absurdities of our postatomic era. However, it is annoying. For a Dada play, that’s a big compliment.

It’s a risky venture, staging 37 poems by women writers. Poems don’t exactly draw crowds, particularly poems by women. One just expects a show like Hot Pink: A Performance of Poetry by Women to fail. But it doesn’t. Hot Pink is a beautiful show. Credit goes to the poets–Margaret Atwood, Erica Jong, Anne Sexton, Joyce Carol Oates, to name only the famous ones–but more credit goes to director Mark Harrison and his talented cast: Genevieve VenJohnson, Denise LaGrassa, Kimberley Furst, and Dado.

Sometimes even the best poets kill their work when they read it aloud. Although the final poems performed by this ensemble seem forced, this group–especially Dado–gives one of the best staged poetry readings I’ve seen, carefully and delicately attuned to the smallest nuances of each poem. The result is a performance that can’t be characterized by one simple adjective. We expect a lot of anger from feminist poetry. It’s there in Hot Pink, but this production reveals that anger is never the only thing. It’s always accompanied by a wide range of complex and genuine emotions.