Theater Oobleck

The Yellow Kid turned 96 on Sunday. On May 5, 1895, Richard Outcault’s comic strip character first appeared in the New York World as a resident of “Hogan’s Alley,” generally recognized as the first successful newspaper cartoon series. Small, bald, big-eared, barefoot, clad only in a yellow nightshirt that sported an ever-changing array of slogans, this forefather of Alfred E. Neuman inhabited an absurdist world of comic cruelty whose violence was an exaggeration of the reality of New York’s Irish slums. In 1896 the Kid was picked up by the New York Journal, where George Herriman’s freaky feline Krazy Kat made his debut in 1910.

The Kid and the Kat are the leading characters in Theater Oobleck’s new show, The Mysticeti and the Mandelbrot Set. In Jeff Dorchen’s new play, the Kid and the Kat are psychedelic time-and-space travelers, trying to understand the nature of chaos and find the place where language (i.e., rationality) ends and whatever comes after that begins.

Along the way, they stumble through a characteristically Oobleckian collage of spiritual and secular arcana; political assaults and rock ‘n’ roll references; biblical, mythological, and scientific references; sexual, scatological, and parental-hostility humor; and lots of drug jokes. The sex, drug, and fart routines not only get the most laughs in the show, they also give the audience something to hold on to; even members of the cultish following Oobleck has developed over the past few years seemed generally confused by the script’s more obscure material (which is to say anything that didn’t involve a bodily function or a fucked-up familial relationship).

There is a plot, sort of. Yellow Kid (an acid-dropping suburbanite rather than the raffish street urchin Outcault conceived) is trapped in a relentlessly repeating but always varying time warp, through which he’s pursued by a masked, disfigured Minotaur. He’s strung up and flogged in a Middle Eastern dungeon (evoked by a marvelous comic-book backdrop painting by Jeramy Turner titled Shamir Shangri-la), stranded in a prehistoric desert with the androgynous Krazy Kat and his/her thuggish mouse companion Ignatz (another terrific backdrop painting, this time by Terry Laban, titled Mesozoic Herriman in honor of Krazy’s creator), zapped to a circus freak show, and exiled on the pier at the end of language (painting by Matt Lopas). Along the way he encounters P.T. Barnum, Israeli commandos, a man with salt crystals growing out of his head, a man with bat wings, a stylish evangelist from the Church of Jesus the Criminal, and several alternative versions of his own sister, who either died of cancer or lived to despise him, depending on which universe the play inhabits at any given moment. (Ariadne, the Minoan princess who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur, pops up too, trapped in a mental maze by the bull-headed man.) Kid and his acquaintances rap on such topics as the Mandelbrot Set (the computer-generated image devised by IBM researcher Benoit Mandelbrot which has become a symbol of infinite chaos), Atlantis, pop-star murder scandals, and Leonardo da Vinci (what if you had to fart while holding a pose for him?).

Kid is finally transported “hometime” to the sterile kitchen of his artsy-craftsy mother (whose morbidly abstract canvas Black Wave #7–designed by Barbara Dorchen–covers the wall). Like so many mothers of unorthodox sons, she accuses Kid of living a “sick life-style”; if she only knew!

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an Oobleck show, but this one fits in with how I remember the others. It’s like a follies show put on by an unusually intellectual and druggy fraternity: overlong yet intriguing, obscure but illuminating, pretentious and playfully self-deflating, and full of ideas and allusions that seem intended to make viewers go out and look stuff up for themselves. And it’s terrifically well played: actors Jeff Dorchen, David Isaacson, Dan Montgomery, Dave Boychicken, Terri Kapsalis (who also plays a mean three-stringed fiddle), Lisa Black, Mickle Maher, Wylie Goodman, Robin Harutunian, Barbara Thorne, Ted DeMoniak, and Rick Boike, working without an outside director, give physically vivid performances at once energized and enigmatic. They’re good enough to make emotional sense out of intellectual nonsense–or rather no sense, which is what many of the contradictory ideas in this play lead to. P.T. Barnum’s appearance calls to mind the circus owner’s famous statement about the world being full of suckers, and a lot of the play seems suckered by its own verbiage. No matter; Theater Oobleck combines intellectual adventurousness and invigorating theatricality with a good party atmosphere, and one could do much worse than spend an evening in the company of these actor-writers and their faithful fans.