Theater Oobleck

It’s been a year since Theater Oobleck did a show and, judging from the crowds flocking to their new one, a slew of artsy theatergoers must have been having withdrawal symptoms. It’s understandable–Oobleck’s parodies can inspire the same analytical passions as an all-night college bull session. On this unpredictable stage what matters isn’t the stroking of an audience’s prejudices or the nurturing of a box-office bonanza, but the pursuit of an old-fashioned, endangered commodity–ideas. And besides they only charge $4 a ticket.

Their latest work launches their new Andersonville space, a sprawling, art-filled warren that’s situated over a funeral home (appropriate, considering that smoking is permitted throughout, though so far not in the auditorium). Oobleck’s cerebral concoction The Spy Threw His Voice: A Plagiarism in Two Acts is both an indulgently clever meditation on the ownership of art and an original reflection on the subject of plagiarism. Created by David Isaacson and the company, it dramatizes a nightmare that plagues two literary survivors of the cold war, Vaclav Havel and William F. Buckley Jr., who are both terrified that they’ve lost creative control of their work.

Symbolically presiding over this “espionage thriller for the 90s” are quotation marks that hang on either side of the stage. Between them lies a huge depiction of an open book. On one page is written the opening scene from Havel’s anti-institutional satire The Memorandum; on the other, the first page of Buckley’s ill-fated cold-war spy thriller Stained Glass. (The unauthorized excerpts from these plays constitute Isaacson’s announced plagiarism.) Neither play is new, yet The Spy Threw His Voice has both being rehearsed for 1991 productions at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New Plays, with the playwrights present to oversee the progress. (Consistent with Oobleck’s own artistic policy, neither play seems to have a director.)

To the authors’ growing frustration, the lines of the two plays keep changing, Pirandello-like, during rehearsal. The culprit is Secret Agent Man, a CIA operative and ventriloquist who’s an expert in disinformation and the play’s sardonic narrator. We learn that he has not only changed the texts of the plays but has also entered and altered the pasts of their authors. In 1964, for instance, he introduced Havel to Pink Floyd, making him “a slave to rock ‘n’ roll” and transforming him from a happy hippy to a pessimist plagued by self-doubt. In 1951 this double agent also briefly employed Buckley as a spy in Mexico, then discharged him for lacking the requisite malleability.

Secret Agent Man also sows doubt in the minds of his victims. Literally allergic to treacherous abstractions such as “peace” and “victory,” a nervous Havel wonders whether his personal optimism and artistic pessimism cancel each other out; he fears he’s “acting the part of myself instead of being it.” Equally split, a no longer smug Buckley finds it increasingly hard to hold to his Catholic conservative absolutes. By now they, like we, are beginning to wonder if they are only dummies to whom Secret Agent Man has thrown his voice.

Desperate to rescue their mutating plays, the irate writers try to destroy Secret Agent Man with the machine he has used to alter their plays. In the “Final Combobulation” scene, Secret Agent Man manages to turn the tables, but is then confronted by a deux ex machina who defends the concept of copyright. Secret Agent Man then argues that copyright laws are not sufficient to restore any hoped for wholeness. Following a gratuitous shoot-out, Havel and Buckley are reduced to living dummies manipulated by Secret Agent Man’s dummies. Like nesting Chinese boxes, they must content themselves with never knowing the difference between what contains them and what they contain.

Like all Oobleck offerings, The Spy Threw His Voice was created without a director’s shaping or editing. It shows. This democratic refusal to cut the actors’ contributions exacts a toll in tedium, and the show takes nearly three hours to say what it could say much more cogently and clearly in half the time.

Of course the sprawl doesn’t matter to the Ooblecks–it’s the Hegelian interplay of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that counts, the dramatic pursuit of contradictions whose resolution will lead to a higher complexity. Yet they seem obsessed with spinning paradoxes and inebriated with cryptic metaphors, such as the voice that’s thrown and the voice that throws. There’s too obvious a confusion of the tendentious with the profound and the intricate with the enlightened. The result is a show that would be much less forgettable if it didn’t spread itself so thin trying to explore an ill-defined theme from every possible philosophic angle.

Yet for all this random cerebration, the theme remains in a fog. Pretending to reduce plays to politics and creation to mind control may seem daring, but The Spy Threw His Voice’s only arguments are made through metaphors; its cynicism has no visible means of support. Worse, the show misses a big opportunity to pit Buckley’s neurasthenic conservatism against Havel’s tested liberalism. Incredibly, these ideological opposites never clash.

Abundantly clever as ever, the Ooblecks know how to ground abstractions in the comically concrete. The dramatists’ attempts to restore their plays’ purity is depicted as a Feydeau farce, with the authors manically chasing their creations like literary cops. Secret Agent Man’s puppets, creations of Red Moon Theater, are crudely devastating totalitarian versions of Edgar Bergen’s lovable Mortimer Snerd and Charlie McCarthy. The contraption that wreaks the damage looks like a killer X-ray machine.

Among the undirected actor-writers, Jeff Dorchen skillfully negotiates his way as the devious Secret Agent Man. A truly bilious Buckley, Mickle Maher perfectly mimics the pompous windbag’s patrician airs. Bearing a strong physical resemblance to his character, Danny Thompson as Havel is a frenzied study in Hamlet-like irresolution and contagious panic. But too often the other actors play characters who seem to be there only because once they were developed, their lines became sacrosanct.