Organic Theater Company
Greenhouse Lab Theater
Zebra Crossing Theatre
at the Avenue Theatre
The way myths and fairy tales emphasize plot over character often leaves me slightly disappointed. The gods may suffer from jealousy, but we see only the outcome of their tantrums, not the tantrums themselves. There’s nothing like a quest to strip a hero of any personality he or she might once have had, and when Prince Charming finally arrives he’s usually so mind-numbingly perfect that “happily ever after” settles over the story like death. I sometimes wish for a little less streamlined elegance and a little more messy human detail in these stories .
Well, I must’ve rubbed up against a magic lamp lately, because two Chicago productions are currently offering what I miss most in such traditional tales. Weetzie Bat, at the Organic Greenhouse, is billed as a “modern day punk fairy tale,” and Zebra Crossing’s Still Waters is an updating of Calypso’s seduction of Odysseus. Both productions have their high and low points, but happily both also pay attention to the human element of grand, magical stories.
Weetzie Bat, an award-winning book for young adults by Francesca Lia Block, has been adapted for the stage by director Ann Boyd and Julia Neary, who plays the title character. Boyd makes the grit in Block’s up-to-the-minute poetry come through, and the result is a sometimes frantic, sometimes graceful, and nearly always effective production.
At first glance Weetzie is just another loud adolescent girl glorying in the magic of Los Angeles–her torn fishnet stockings worn with combat boots and short skirt seem tiresome badges of the would-be free spirit, and I settled in for yet another coming-of-age story. Weetzie’s love of LA is infectious, however: she describes Venice Beach as having “columns and canals like the real Venice, maybe, only cooler because of the surfers.” It’s also disturbing: like her itinerant scriptwriter father, Charlie Bat (Dan Howell, rumpled and sweet), Weetzie is a sucker for LA’s easy illusions; as the elder Bat observes, living there is too much “like having a good dream that you know you’re going to wake up from.”
Weetzie’s needs are simple: she would like life to be a movie, and like any teenager she’s looking for perfect love. Ironically she finds it with Dirk (Rick LaFond), her major candidate in the boyfriend, or “duck,” department, who turns out to be gay–but the two remain inseparable friends. They go “duck hunting” together, throwing themselves on the rough seas of LA nightlife, and eventually live together. When Weetzie comes into the possession of a magic lamp, one of her first wishes is for Dirk’s welfare. She wishes for “a duck for Dirk,” a little house to live in, and her own “Secret Agent Lover Man.” But, settling in for the happily-ever-after part, she finds the wishes have to be paid for, as in most fairy tales.
Here the price has to do with living an untenable illusion–happily ever after is not an option, even in Weetzie’s beloved Los Angeles. She wants a baby, but her lover (Charley Sherman) is reluctant to bring a child into a world he perceives as increasingly violent and deadly. Indeed, Weetzie’s cozy domesticity is invaded by threats of all kinds: AIDS, infidelity, witchcraft, grief. “Love and disease are like electricity,” Dirk tells his lover (whose name is Duck). You can’t see either of them, but they’re in the air, waiting to strike.
This production merges tender fatalism with manic energy; in flamboyantly staged nightclub scenes the entire ensemble engage in abstract acts of lovemaking, but when tragedy strikes the illusions are stripped away. The mirrored ball on Ken Heinze’s bubble gum-colored set stops spinning, and there’s only Weetzie onstage, coping with the help of a few friends as best she can.
Even as a screeching adolescent, Neary’s Weetzie is undeniably charming in her optimism; and LaFond’s Dirk is much more than a black leather jacket, chains, and a Mohawk: he’s a caring friend. In fact, Dirk and Duck (the hilarious Murray McKay, who gives Duck a simple nature and an endearing waddle) are easily the most tender, sincere pair of lovers I’ve seen onstage all year.
The only fly in this ointment is some out-and-out tedious video, presumably meant to illustrate Weetzie’s preoccupation with movies–something the script does a fine job of handling on its own. This tight, whimsical little play doesn’t need badly shot and often incoherent home movies.
Calypso’s imprisonment of Odysseus takes up only one short chapter of Homer’s Odyssey: the immortal nymph falls in love with Odysseus and holds him captive on her beautiful island, allowing him everything but his freedom to return home. Despite his homesickness and longing for his wife, Odysseus does sleep with Calypso a number of times, until the gods demand she let him go free.
Playwright Lynn Martin has updated this tale, setting it in a diner in the mountains of West Virginia and turning Calypso into a bored young seductress who plays with the weather and human lives. Odysseus is a biker running from a failing marriage who stumbles across the diner on his travels. For a dash of drama and tension, Martin gives Odysseus a rival, the crippled god Hepaestus, an iron forger who loves Calypso just a shade too quietly to keep her happy. Homer himself is a customer at the diner, sitting in a corner, blind, wise, and all too sure of how every situation is going to turn out.
In this Zebra Crossing production, directed by Marlene Zuccaro, it’s great fun to watch Calypso–or Lypso, as she’s called here–launch an all-out seduction on the not entirely hapless but very confused Odysseus. Kathryn Marie Smith is a long-legged beauty, and David De Vore’s Odysseus is a rather sexy good ol’ boy with a touch of a conscience. Also fun to watch is Steve Emily’s lame Phestus (Hepaestus), who fights for Lypso’s love with all the stolid determination of a mountain man and second-rate god.
A bit heavy-handed are references to a wild raccoon kept in a cage. “You ain’t supposed to cage up pets,” Lypso informs Phestus. “Maybe she’s just itchin’ to go someplace.” Lypso herself obviously is, bored with her little paradise but unable to leave it, and later so is Odysseus. Besides, his teeth start to fall out when he hangs around with immortals too long, though why is never quite made clear.
Some patchy acting and a few too many ruminations on the nature of love and freedom make this play drag on a good ten minutes too long; for every funny observation (“This little adventure of yours is gonna be a paper cut on your ass,” Phestus advises at one point) we get a cliche like “It’s mighty hard to tame a wild thing.” But it’s still refreshing to see a god come down off the mountaintop all in a huff and threaten Odysseus by aiming a double-barreled shotgun square at his heroic crotch.