Theater Oobleck

at Cabaret Voltaire

Theater Oobleck is smart. Theater Oobleck is funny. Theater Oobleck has style, daring, big ideas, energy, and a healthy sense of the bizarre. Theater Oobleck is unusual and good. Naturally, I’m worried.

I mean, it’s your basic recipe for disaster, isn’t it? Here be the Ooblecks: a group of extraordinarily literate, highly politicized young theatricals from Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a notion of ensemble so pure it would scare most actors half to death. They build their shows collectively, nonhierarchically, developing scripts as a group and working without benefit of a “director” in the conventional sense of the word–forming instead a sort of directorate of the whole.

These Ooblecks come to Chicago and put on a few productions with names like Godzilla Vs. Lent and Cud, to which various critics respond with names like “offbeat” and “audacious.” The critics are impressed with the funky ambience of the Oobleck home base behind Cabaret Voltaire; they like the heady, anarchic storm of jokes, allusions, subversions, and cracked associations Oobleck unleashes, bringing folks like Martin Heidegger and Mitzi Gaynor into the same sudden universe.

What the critics don’t like are Oobleck’s raggedy edges. They reject what they see as an undisciplined and indulgent messiness about the work. Unevenness, fat, confusion, and patches of pedantry. Two out of three agree that Oobleck needs a good director to neaten things up.

That’s why I’m worried. Suppose Oobleck starts listening to its friends, the critics?

It’s absolutely ludicrous to tell a group like Oobleck to get a director. Telling Oobleck to get a director is like telling Robin Williams to calm down and concentrate on one . . . thing . . . at . . . a . . . time. It’s like that scene in Amadeus where Emperor Joseph II complains that Mozart’s music has too many notes in it.

Telling Oobleck to get a director is like saying, I really love what you’re doing–now get rid of it. A complete negation masquerading as praise. Oobleck’s whole aesthetic–not to mention its whole ethic–depends on the absence of a conventional, authoritarian, organizing presence. These folks are after something bigger than a clean show. They’re true utopians, trying to build a method consistent with their communal message. Trying to make a practice that will encompass, reinforce, and structure what they preach. The rough spots in their shows are a natural, healthy byproduct of that practice. Or of the striving toward it, anyway. Eliminate the rough spots by means that contradict the practice–by means of a director, for instance; by means of a unity derived not from group coherence, but from somebody’s enforced vision–and, I guarantee you, you’ll also be eliminating the source of their genius.

You heard me, I said “genius.” An adolescent genius; a chaotic genius; a groping, exasperating, grandiose, hilarious genius. You can see it in the current Oobleck show, The Pope Is Not a Eunuch–a sophisticated satire, at once frivolous and dead-on, that runs from the bowels of the Vatican to the shores of Lake Michigan; from the conniving Cardinal Sindona to Dizzy, the arpeggio-singing baby; from the murder of Pope John Paul I to the suspension of cause and effect; from a crazed Harriet Beecher Stowe to something like the arctic scene from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; from camouflage miters to elephant sausage; from information-age stasis to an anarchist paradise, where authority is a disgrace, assassination is legal, and you can hear the infant poetry of “a thousand beautiful stories explaining themselves to each other.”

I can’t explain it all to you here. Go see it. The look on Lisa Black’s face as her Cardinal Sindona rocks out to “Dust in the Wind” is worth the price of admission–which is free, by the way, if you’re broke.

American culture destroys what it loves by conferring success on it. Steppenwolf was a great ensemble, so we made some members stars and butchered the ensemble. Hair was a provocative expression of its time, so we revived it as nostalgia and neutralized the provocation. The Oobleck people aren’t even a success yet, but they’re already being told to abandon their essence because we like them so much. Let Oobleck be Oobleck, I say. These kids’ve got art and an analysis. I’d love to see them pursue both into the next decade, and the next, for as long as they like. For as long as they can hold out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.