Theater Oobleck

at Cabaret Voltaire

Despite being a major university center, Chicago has never been particularly hospitable to intellectual comedy. Second City lowered its brow years ago, and few other companies have sought to revive its original high standard; troupes that have tried, most notably and recently including the brilliant Friends of the Zoo, haven’t been able to hang in there for very long.

So I hope Theater Oobleck is able to make a go of it. This young group is relatively new to Chicago, having come here from Ann Arbor, where they played under the name Streetlight Theater. Now they’re headquartered at Cabaret Voltaire, a recently opened coffee bar/pool hall with a collegiate-counterculture air to it. It’s a relaxed, low-overhead, lowered-expectations sort of space that suits Theater Oobleck’s irreverent, anarchistic, postgraduate style.

The group’s new effort, Three Who Dared: A Play on the Movies, is quite funny–if you understand all the references, a caveat that may limit the audience. But maybe not; maybe the sheer eclecticism of the topics addressed–from musical comedy and old movies to existentialist philosophy and deconstructionist literary criticism–can draw a crowd of special-interest cognoscenti. Or maybe the intense importance and universality of the play’s theme–the intellectual rationalization of violence and fascism from generation to generation–will stand strongly enough on its own that people who don’t know who Martin Heidegger or Rossano Brazzi were will still respond to what’s going on on the stage.

The hook on which Three Who Dared hangs is “the trial of Rossano Brazzi”–the aging Italian matinee idol who starred in the movie version of South Pacific–for helping sell arms to Middle Eastern terrorists. A ridiculous enough premise, except it happens to be true; the wire services ran an item on Brazzi’s indictment some time back, though I don’t know the outcome of the matter. (Still, it’s refreshing to know that Ronald Reagan isn’t the only has-been movie star interested in such matters.)

Brazzi’s “trial” opens the door to an Alice in Wonderland-like interrogation in which the actor is judged by his onscreen as well as offscreen actions; since these include murder (in both South Pacific and The Barefoot Contessa), Rossano’s in deep shit. It doesn’t help his case that he didnt even sing his own songs in South Pacific: “It’s very difficult to act with someone who’s mouthing his words,” testifies costar Mitzi Gaynor. “I had to wonder, is this man trustworthy?” (Gaynor is wrongly portrayed as an aging biddy, not as the still-glamorous entertainer she is; the truth would be more amusing.)

Then we have Paul De Man, Yale professor and eminent literary critic, analyzing the true meaning of South Pacific by deconstructing its text. “The lump in her throat is language!” De Man proclaims of Nellie Forbush’s song about being in love in love in love with a wonderful guy. But De Man’s exploration of this musical about an American girl who falls for a Frenchman with a criminal past leads to exposure of De Man’s own secret: as recent news accounts have exposed, in 1940-42 De Man wrote anti-Semitic essays for a Belgian newspaper.

Thus De Man, the intellectual rhetorician–played as a stereotypical ivory-tower turkey by David Isaacson, who is the script’s principal author (and who recalls the onetime Second City actor Severn Darden in looks and comedic style)–is shown ritually beating an Israeli soldier. The Israeli in turn torments the Arab guerrilla to whom Brazzi sells weapons. The play’s most shocking image is also its funniest: the Israeli driving a Jeep with the Arab tied to its hood (a means of discouraging snipers).

Along the way we encounter Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who provided a rationale for Hitler’s superman shtick–“Who can explain it?” asks the author of Being and Time. “Who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons. Wise men never try.” Also on the scene is Leni Riefenstahl, who abetted Hitler’s cause with her cinematic odes to fascism. (The scene of the cat fight between Riefenstahl and all-American Mitzi Gaynor is priceless.) The neo-realist filmmaker Robert Rossellini also drops in to denounce Brazzi’s blatant commercialism and lack of political engagement; but Rossellini is in turn confronted with his own flirtation with the fascist Mussolini. And finally, there is a visit from the Meaning of the Play, who is quickly transformed into South Pacific’s romantic exploiter Lieutenant Cable. Throughout the proceedings, there are sudden intrusions by the Moral Outrage of the World–alternately a man and a woman wearing a big pink sign decorated with a large black exclamation point, defiantly denouncing moral ambiguity in the face of fascist atrocities of Nazis, Jews, and Arabs alike–but also protesting the play for bringing the Holocaust and the Middle East rioting together in the same script.

With the large, agile, quirky, and musically gifted Theater Oobleck cast darting on and off the stage, tossing off complex cross-references as if they were screwball non sequiturs, Three Who Dared flies by so fast and furiously that it’s impossible to keep track of, or to describe. That, of course, is a keynote of the anarchist style. While peppering the script with easy-to-laugh-at jokes, Theater Oobleck also makes it impossible for the audience to get a firm grip on what’s going on. In art as in life–so be it. Meanwhile, Chicago theater has a bright and probing new comic spirit at work; long may they prosper.