Saturday, March 24, performances at the Theatre Building

After a two-year absence, the Off Off Loop Theater Festival has returned, and none too soon. A town with as busy a fringe theater scene as Chicago’s ought to have a yearly, or at least a biennial, showcase for our smaller, more often ignored companies.

This year the enterprise is not being sponsored by the League of Chicago Theaters, which found that its first two festivals, held in 1986 and 1987, raised too many disagreements among its members. According to league member Rick Helweg, of the Chicago Actors Ensemble, “The league didn’t want to be a producing agent. Obviously there are too many members to put them all into the festival, and [the league] didn’t feel good about making that choice.”

Instead Merc trader, theatrical entrepreneur, and part owner of the Wellington Theater Doug Bragan has produced the festival, which for the first time in its brief history is being run as a for-profit enterprise. Whether the festival will actually make money remains to be seen. But where else could we ever hope to sample the work of 16 different off-off-Loop theaters, served up in four equal portions, with no single play in each four-play program running longer than 50 minutes?

I saw the first two programs–the Saturday performances–of the festival, and they’re fairly uneven affairs. Of these eight works, several are wonderful (Bailiwick Repertory’s Recalling the Reunion, BDI Theatre Company’s 5 Very Live), a number are flawed (Chicago Actors Ensemble’s Volokolamsk Highway, Inn Town Players’ Savage in Limbo), and one is a real stinker (the Collection’s Of All the Wide Torsos in All the Wild Glen).

Such unevenness, however, should surprise no one–off-off-Loop theater is pretty uneven in general–nor should it discourage the curious. A slick, crowd-pleasing festival would have been far worse, because then the producers would have had to ignore a number of wildly inconsistent but still valuable theaters and would have stifled the rest. The great virtue of our off-off-Loop theaters is their willingness to take risks.

The Saturday matinees (which will be the Saturday evening performances starting April 7) began with Inn Town Players’ competent but unfocused production of John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo. Although the production was never boring, it was sad to see Shanley’s excellent script, about a group of New York working-class stiffs trying to find themselves in a local dive, undone by a number of slightly off performances. Sarah Cosgrove gave an inhibited imitation of a New York blue-collar Italian accent, and Liz Sipes was energetic but off-kilter as Denise Savage. Saddest of all was the way director Sipes’s five-member cast committed the cardinal sin–being caught in the act of acting–and in the process made Shanley’s poeticized blue-collar dialect (made famous in his script for the movie Moonstruck) seem arch and unbelievable.

The play that followed could easily have drifted–but didn’t–into a similar arch unbelievability. Pegasus Players has produced 18-year-old Rimini Butler’s There’s a Right and a Wrong Way to Love Someone, the winning play in the company’s 1989 Chicago Young Playwrights Festival. Clearly everyone in this production worked very hard to make Butler’s well-written, tightly structured, but didactic play about child abuse as believable and unpreachy as possible. Director Gary Griffin has assembled a cast of above-average actors, who turn in consistent, well-crafted, if not particularly inspired performances one and all.

Coming on the heels, as it does, of a play about physical abuse, Dan Sutherland’s cruel comedy performed by Prop Theatre about a pair of well-meaning but pushy parents absolutely obsessed with their bright daughter’s future is hard to take. But then I think I, Bobeck would be hard to take under any circumstances. That’s the play’s strength. I, Bobeck, which Sutherland wrote especially for the festival, offers an unflinching critique of the American dream and of anyone who buys into it.

Sutherland paints a portrait of a lower-middle-class dad so determined to send his daughter, Joan, to an expensive private school that he’s lost all perspective. To earn the tuition, he takes on odd part-time jobs–collecting and cleaning used combs, dressing up as a clown for birthday parties–comic bits that more often than not prove more disturbing than funny. For example, Joan’s parents, dressed in full clown regalia, discover to their and Joan’s embarrassment that they’re entertaining at a party thrown by one of Joan’s rich friends. No other play in these two programs achieves a moment as profoundly distressing as the climax of this scene, in which Joan denies these are her parents and, while her friends roar with laughter, “proves it” by viciously spanking her father with a slapstick. It’s hard not to admire a comedy capable of such disquieting moments as this. The play deserves more than the couple of paragraphs I can give it here.

Another play that deserves a more extensive treatment is Chicago Actors Ensemble’s Volokolamsk Highway (“The Road of the Tanks”), by East German avant-garde playwright Heiner Muller. This dense, brooding production attempts nothing less, in director Helweg’s words, than “a look at the birth, subsequent stagnation and death of the East German Communist Party.” It very nearly succeeds. However, in trying to cover this huge subject–East German history from 1945 to 1988–CAE nearly chokes the audience with images and ideas. Certainly Muller’s difficult text requires the audience to listen more carefully than audiences usually do and to know more about East Germany’s history than audiences are likely to know. Moreover, CAE’s inventive but unconventional staging will alienate many–the woman behind me yawned several times, very loudly, as if by being impolite she could convince the company to cut short their performance. But those who remain open to Muller’s story, told through a series of angry monologues shouted by actors placed throughout the auditorium, will be left breathless by the sheer intensity of some of the dramatic moments, especially a sequence in which a line of workers mime the building of the Berlin Wall. This is a failed experiment, but would that other theaters’ successes achieved as much.

Turning to the Saturday evening program (which will become the Saturday matinees April 7)–the less said about the first play the better. Paul Peditto’s offensive story about a fat playwright named Maxwell Gibbs who submits to liposuction might, under the right circumstances, be considered somewhat funny. But despite the fact that Peditto directs his own work, these are not the right circumstances. Early in Of All the Wide Torsos in All the Wild Glen, when the premise of a stuffy, overweight man having his fat sucked out is still fresh enough to be funny, David Robinson as Gibbs and Judy Gershon as the liposuctionist’s nurse, Miss Hastings, can’t keep from stepping on each other’s lines. Later, when Robinson and Gershon finally get their act together, the script’s premise has gone stale. One can’t help but wonder, watching the last tedious half-hour, why Peditto decided to stretch this flimsy premise into a 50-minute one-act. Victoria Jackson covered essentially the same offensive ground in a mere eight minutes earlier this year on Saturday Night Live.

Peditto would have done better to follow the example of playwright Tim Ness, whose Recalling the Reunion certainly proves how much one can do, even in less than half an hour. This deceptively simple play concerns an aged, institutionalized father whose brief visit with his adult son speaks volumes about father-son relations. Frank Chesek, a real find among non-Equity actors, couldn’t be better as the father–he seems equally at home portraying an elderly man’s crankiness and a father’s wistful nostalgia remembering his son as a little boy. Mark Enos’s direction of this Bailiwick production is nothing less than sublime.

BDI Theatre Company’s production of David VanMatre’s 5 Very Live, though hardly sublime, manages to be ridiculous in a very entertaining way. Which is more than one would expect from a spoof of that most spoofed of topics, TV news. Happily, VanMatre pursues more than mere parody, and his script rises far above the usual TV-inspired comedy. Even when VanMatre the writer is a bit heavy-handed (such as when the newscasters drive a fictional baseball hero, Steve Basswood, to suicide), VanMatre the director and his cast of six sharp comic performers stage the material to advantage. They make the obvious seem subtle, and the subtle seem brilliant. You can’t ask much more of a play based on the vicious rituals of TV-style journalism.

Nor can you ask much of a theater company whose sole purpose is to “rescue the early dramatic repertoire from the suffocation of textbooks.” It is enough that the Chicago Medieval Players exist, and are willing to try, from time to time, to breathe life into some mummified medieval script. Their play here, Pathelin, a 15th-century French farce, succeeds better than the last dreary play of theirs I saw, Tom Tiler. Still, this play has more historical than entertainment value. It doesn’t help that the director, Howard Gary Kaplan, seems to have instructed the actors to perform the farce at what looks like half its normal speed. The result is that what might have been a decent 15th-century version of the Three Stooges, complete with lots of slapstick, becomes a plodding academic exercise in which the audience is always three steps ahead of the performers. Only David Engel, as a scheming shepherd, is able to wring laughs out of his role.

Having said all this, let me add that it’s thrilling to have a vibrant enough theater scene to fill two days’ worth of festival. I plan to catch the Sunday half on my own time.