Saratoga Company

at Bailiwick Repertory

In 1925 Antonin Artaud wrote a very strange play, translated variously as Jet of Blood or The Spurt of Blood, filled with odd characters, absurd plot twists, unspeakable acts, and the sort of unstageable stage directions you’d expect from a man who had spent 9 of his last 11 years in an insane asylum. In one scene, for example, the notoriously misogynistic Artaud describes how scorpions are supposed to emerge from under the dress of a wet nurse and “swarm into her sex.” In another, Artaud interrupts a sweet encounter between a young man and woman with a cataclysmic storm in which legs, arms, masks, and columns are supposed to rain down from heaven “in slow motion.”

Though the play was not produced until 1964–by Peter Brook and Charles Marowitz–16 years after Artaud’s death, scholars have called the work a “landmark in Artaud’s development” and a major influence on the theater of the absurd. Still, it’s hard to imagine that this play would be very easy to sit through. I suspect that even those who take Artaud’s theories (as published in his seminal The Theatre and Its Double) as scripture would find themselves shifting in their seats during such deliberately nonsensical moments as the scene in which Artaud arbitrarily introduces a knight and the wet nurse into the story, only to have them argue over cheese.

All of which goes a long way toward explaining why Chicago-based writer-actors Craig Carlisle and Jay Woolston decided against producing a faithful version of The Spurt of Blood. Instead they incorporated Artaud’s play into their vicious, for the most part on-the-mark, late-night satire of Artaud and those who would take him too seriously. Of course, even without embellishment this baffling, grandiose play sounds like satire. But in Carlisle and Woolston’s version, The Spurt of Blood becomes the parody Artaud never meant it to be.

The premise of Carlisle and Woolston’s adaptation is that a troupe of incompetent actors called the Art for Art Madrigals, led by an ineffectual martinet of a director, Clive Ennui (played by Woolston), have decided to perform Artaud’s impossible play. Lacking both talent and money, the Madrigals are woefully unequal to the task. Lines are missed. Props are lost. The all-important special effects are laughably bad, the most pathetic being a stuffed glove on the end of a pole to represent the mighty hand of God. At every screwup, Ennui throws a tantrum. In Ennui’s god-awful production, things go wrong even when they go right: the same few seconds of overblown dramatic music are played whenever the word “blood” is mentioned.

Parts of Carlisle and Woolston’s production are strongly reminiscent of Monty Python, especially the jokes they make about the more obscure aspects of Artaud’s life (for example his odd obsession with shit, which appears throughout his writings). It’s not hard to imagine Michael Palin or John Cleese delivering the following lines from the show: “He died as he lived. Of rectal cancer. Obsessed with his anus.”

It’s not surprising that a parody of Artaud would yield Python-esque humor, since Monty Python was strongly influenced by the theater of the absurd. What is surprising is how easily Artaud’s intentionally shocking bits–for example, the above-mentioned apocalyptic rain of body parts–can be converted into comedy worthy of Terry Gilliam’s best animated sequences.

But the humor isn’t all in the Monty Python vein. Alan Miller’s kitschy dance sequences are more in the spirit of Mel Brooks, or of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker. These tight, drill-team-like formations are easily the funniest bits in the show. Unfortunately, they’re concentrated in the first half of the show.

This minor misstep, however, is overshadowed by an even bigger one in the last third of the show in which Carlisle and Woolston, for reasons unknown, drop their parodic stance for a few minutes and attempt a straight take on The Spurt of Blood, with predictable results. Except for a few surprisingly touching moments between the young man and woman (ably acted by Scott Werne and Lisa Gingerich), Artaud’s play proves every bit as silly and undramatic as the preceding hour or so of parody indicates.

Why Carlisle felt it necessary to show that his cast could play Artaud straight after mocking him for the better part of an hour is beyond me. Maybe he felt insecure directing a show that was funny start to finish. He shouldn’t have; Artaud himself was a great fan of the Marx Brothers and a firm believer in the anarchic irreverence of comedy. As he wrote in The Theatre and Its Double: “The contemporary theater . . . has lost a sense of real humor, a sense of laughter’s power of physical and anarchic dissociation.”

In its funniest moments, Carlisle and Woolston’s The Spurt of Blood manages to evoke the spirit of Artaud even as it mocks him. At its worst it re-creates the kind of dead theater Artaud railed against. Happily, the good moments far outnumber the bad ones.