Curious Theatre Branch
at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe
By Justin Hayford
I may be encroaching upon the sacred turf of market analysts and tabloid psychics, but here goes: the great Bryn Magnus magnum opus that Chicago fringe dwellers have long awaited may be just around the corner.
But The Julieannes, his ninth play with the Curious Theatre Branch, is decidedly not it. If you haven’t yet caught up with Boy Wonder Bryn, this may not be the best time to jump on the bandwagon, although God knows there’s room (on opening night only a handful of people showed up, a large number of them friends and colleagues). The Julieannes, which will run through February as part of the Rhino in Winter festival, is one of his less substantial works. While it opens with all the dazzling linguistic turns and imaginative leaps that have solidified Magnus’s reputation among the off-off-off-off-Loop crowd, it fizzles into an oddly dispassionate jumble.
The Julieannes is a disappointment, but if you believe in a universe of infinite return, there is cause for hope. In the past Magnus has capitalized upon his failures more brilliantly than most playwrights have exploited their successes. In fact his biggest bomb, the 1993 Losers Alias, inspired him to create his most sophisticated work to date, Invisible Sympathies. And The Julieannes may mark the end of Magnus’s second phase of development.
The first began in the late 1980s when Magnus and a scraggly band of penniless visionaries formed the Curious Theatre Branch in a cramped storefront cum playground that within a few years evolved into the hub of the thriving Wicker Park performance scene. Magnus’s early plays were sprawling, effusive, whip-smart hallucinations bounding across imaginary continents of the mind, binding together in sensational discord various literary and theatrical styles. These were thrilling messes that epitomized the neo-operatic, rigorously intellectual extravaganzas Curious Theatre and the closely affiliated Theatre Oobleck were mounting in those days. Like homesteaders in early 19th-century America, these artists staked out their turf on a vast empty plain, the plain left when kitchen-sink realism died. Naturally they built massive ranches, not well-appointed two-room vacation homes.
That era came to a crashing end, at least for Curious, with Magnus’s titanic muddle Losers Alias (Oobleck continues to barrel forward with gorgeous monstrosities like The Making of Freud and Anywhere Else Than Here Today). Losers Alias was a play so blindly ambitious it ran into a brick wall and knocked itself out cold. Even with a live hard-core band and professional wrestlers literally bouncing off the walls, Losers Alias was down for the count after about 12 minutes. Magnus seemed to have pitched his tent so deeply in the forests of his own imagination that he couldn’t find a clearing from which to speak intelligibly. That train wreck of an artistic experience seems to haunt him: when I run into him now, he rarely fails to mention how defeated he felt by that production.
But like most of the traumas we live through, this one produced a sea change. A new playwright was born in Magnus’s next work, a trio of chamber pieces called Invisible Sympathies. Here Magnus boiled his playwriting down to its linguistic and dramatic essentials–spare phrases, minimal movement, no more than two characters, never a change of location, everything unfolding in real time. The results were startling. Magnus’s breathtaking surrealist diversions were still there and still mysterious–in one piece, a man tells the story of chasing golden, translucent frogs through a slimy pond in an attempt to explain what marriage is like–but for the first time they were immediately accessible, free of the visual clutter and circuitous plot twists that had obscured them in the past.
Months later Magnus expanded Invisible Sympathies into a rotating repertoire of eight short pieces, performed almost as literary readings at the Curious Theatre Branch’s new home, the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, a collective where the Curious bunch could live, work, perform, produce, and most of all nurture one another’s talents. Their new watchwords were dependability, practicality, and integrity: to this day they give 80 percent of the door to the musical acts they book, an unheard-of practice. Magnus’s writing, in keeping with this trend, was more reserved, observant, and workmanlike than ever before. His fellow Curiousers followed suit. Sister Jenny Magnus’s The Trips and grand poobah Beau O’Reilly’s The Third Degrees of J.O. Breeze, which both premiered last year, were the most succinct, exacting, delightful works either had produced (both will also appear as part of the Rhino in Winter festival).
The Julieannes continues this tradition, with writing at times so restrained it’s positively civilized. Yet, sauntering breezily along in his graceful prose, Magnus drifts into a theatrical black hole from which nothing, not even drama, can escape.
The play is built upon the simplest of premises. Two women meet while trying on clothes in a posh boutique and discover they have the same first name. To their mutual amusement and dismay, however, they are perfect opposites. Julieanne P is a guileless, hyperbolically good-hearted realtor who stakes her life on the redeeming purity of love; she is disconsolate because she believes her husband hates her for loving him too selflessly. Julieanne Z, a deliciously jaded Martha Stewart devotee, takes every opportunity to cast herself as a shrinking violet in hopes that others will indulge her every wish. P says she treats others the way she wants to be treated; Z retorts that she treats others the way she expects to be treated.
The play begins with great promise, full of sophisticated verbal gymnastics reminiscent of the Al-gonquin Round Table of the 20s and 30s (to buy a new dress, Julieanne Z declares, is “to parade a rimshot through the burlesque of life”). Amy Warren as Julieanne Z brings such fullness and subtlety to her role one wonders why Magnus hasn’t written every one of his plays for her. She’s the ideal Magnus actor: precise, unfailingly unstable, and in love with her own linguistic excess. She throws emotional logic to the wind, as any actor tackling one of Magnus’s roles must, diving headfirst into the white-water rapids of pure impulse. By contrast Jennifer Fite as Julieanne P remains on dry land, steadfastly adhering to common sense in Magnus’s decidedly impetuous world. Fite can’t quite get caught in the flow the way she’s supposed to, but then Magnus has only sketched her character–at least compared to the effulgent Julieanne Z–giving her little to get caught in.
The opening scenes, with both actresses speaking directly to the audience, feel almost like a concert, the performers nearly singing Magnus’s text: Magnus, who also directed, signals us to attend more to language than to story. A wise approach, for this is a play nearly without plot. The same presentational approach served him well in last year’s Invisible Sympathies, where the pieces were brief and the writing Byzantine. But here Magnus moves from sizzling, intricate dialogue to pedestrian conversation as the Julieannes begin confessing to each other their innermost insecurities over coffee. The introduction of Julieanne P’s spaced-out therapist sister Regina adds some much-needed unpredictability (and Lusia Strus’s languorous, hypnotic performance makes one wonder why Magnus doesn’t write every other play for her). But Regina too settles into sensible complacency, which is as useless and out of place in Magnus’s imaginative world as a paperweight at Stonehenge.
Magnus seems to have overlooked a simple truth about his characters: they draw us in only so long as they try to keep us at arm’s length. The things that his colorful parade of characters disclose are never half as intriguing as the things they attempt to conceal–from us, from one another, and, perhaps most important, from themselves. Once the truth sluices open, as they do in the second half of The Julieannes, most of the drama drains away.
Magnus’s brilliance as a playwright lies in indirection and camouflage: in the great tradition of Chekhov, Pinter, and Mamet, the Curious Theatre is a Theater of Subterfuge in which closely guarded, highly suspect motivations drive self-deluded characters up against walls of their own design. But dramatic urgency disappears when the playwright tips his characters off, pulling them aside and telling them to watch their step–precisely the mistake Magnus makes here. In essence he falls into a trap that ensnares many contemporary playwrights: thinking that unearthing hidden truths necessarily heightens drama. Eugene O’Neill casts a long shadow across American playwriting, and Sam Shepard, standing on his shoulders, extends it that much farther.
Magnus seems ready for another sea change. In the past, he admits, his outlandish stories rested on the shoulders of sketchy characters who weren’t up to the burden. With Invisible Sympathies he forced himself to set aside story and develop the voices of his characters. Now those voices say too much. Before the opening-night performance of The Julieannes, Magnus confessed that he’s anxious to return to Losers Alias armed with the techniques he’s recently discovered: an opportune impulse. Magnus’s theater, which was at times smothered under a cloud of impenetrable excess, now withers in the unforgiving light of overanalysis. His characters tell us all the things we wish they didn’t know, and the mystery is gone. Magnus’s two divergent artistic streams have each dumped him over the edge of a cliff. His challenge now is to merge those streams, so that the epic lyricism of his early works can escape semidarkness without the mystery and wonder simply evaporating. That way greatness lies.