The Neo-Futurists

at Live Bait Theater

The nearly two-year-old cult show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is a late-night concoction of 30 rapid-fire “plays” performed in 60 minutes by the often inspired, always hard-working Neo-Futurist ensemble: Greg Allen, Dave Awl, Ted Bales, Lisa Buscani, Karen Christopher, Adrian Danzig, Ayun Halliday, Spencer Kayden, Heather Riordan, and Phil Ridarelli. A combination audience-participation quiz show and neo-vaudeville showcase, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind gives the term “interactive” a whole new spin.

Conceived and staged by Greg Allen, this show takes some of its fire from the old futurism, a literary-artistic movement that began in Italy around 1909. In manifestos and onomatopoeic poems F.T. Marinetti fulminated its credo: a celebration of technology, speed, and automation—and an equal delight in irrationality, adventure, and war. According to Marinetti, “With Futurism art has become action, as will, attack, possession, penetration, joy and brutal reality.”

Appropriately, Allen’s tongue-in-cheek updating of a futurist entertainment exalts speed and chance. His seven-member troupe (the three others were taking a break the night I saw it) relish “the simultaneous clash of opposing emotions, contradictory ideas, and separate realities.” You see this in the engineered randomness of the show: as they arrive, audience members throw a die to determine how much they pay (from $1 to $6), receive name tags with made-up monikers, and then step onto the stage to chat in groups with cast members.

Though Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind wants its art to feel as random as life, it’s inevitably structured—particularly by time. As if to prove that purposeless efficiency can be an end in itself, the running order of the plays is called out by the audience. Numbered sheets of paper hung from a clothesline are pulled down, and after an hour (as measured by a darkroom timer) not a sheet should be left hanging. (Three were left at that point the night I saw the show, but they were performed after the deadline—just for the record.) When a show is sold out (85 or more patrons), the Neo-Futurists order out for pizza—and the pizza deliverer inevitably becomes part of the act.

The result is unashamedly live and democratic theater, an antidote to the paralysis of the boob tube. As the Neo-Futurists declare: “We refuse to be preached to from the stages and the television sets of the world! We refuse to be mindless voyeurs to our lives and the lives of those around us! We refuse to be content with the same old thing day after day after day.” Like the old futurists, the neos want to crack a calcified world.

In a show that tells its young audiences, “You are responsible not just for the stage but for the world” and “It’s OK to make noise,” you expect some creative byplay. Audience members, many of them repeaters, are encouraged to spontaneously cheer on the action with helpful or subversive suggestions. (We were told that one night a woman puked in the second row, carrying subversion a tad too far.)

The show stays fresh because the plays are changed weekly (the number of new works to be introduced each week is determined by two throws of a die). During the show’s 20-month run—first at Stage Left Theatre and now to packed houses at Live Bait Theater—the ever-changing cast have created an awesome 546 plays, only two of which I recall seeing less than a year ago.

As the cast rush around changing props and cuing lights and sound (ever more frantically as the 60-minute limit nears), it’s easy to think it’s all improvised. But their apparent instantaneity is well planned and carefully crafted. Rightly so—some things shouldn’t be left to chance, and certainly not when you can simulate randomness.

The August 11 edition of these hit-and-run miniplays covered strange new ground. Among the subjects: the mixed signals parents give kids on where to draw the line between need and greed, an overly amorous couple on a dance floor who make every number a slow clutch, how dreams about vegetables have changed people’s lives, the dumb things people do to feel cool (“Dye your hair black to prove you’re serious”), the buried emotions beneath stilted foreign-language drills, the way a dentist’s drill reminds you—too late—to floss.

Unlike Second City, the Neo-Futurists aren’t allergic to serious topics. “Pimple on an Elephant” sardonically contrasts Mayor Daley’s criticism of the press during the Commonwealth Edison blackout with the real menaces of spoiled food and the killer fire that was caused by candles. “Minute of Hope” hawks Guilt Away, the perfect cure for a liberal’s doubts about his undeserved good life. The myth that there are no political prisoners in the land of the free is exploded in “23x.” “A Tribute to Mitch Snyder” contrasts the homeless crisis with the government’s indifference to the poor by using a game of musical chairs to show how homelessness can happen to anyone.

Sight and sound gags abound. Heather Riordan warbles a baroque Italian aria—standing on her head. In “Like Bees to Honey” three guys twirl humming ropes as they make their come-ons. After having what looks like a real accident, Ted Bales simulates a hilarious, hokey out-of-body experience (had he just seen Flatliners?). There’s even a sightless gag: played in pitch darkness, “Butterflies Are Free” has Karen Christopher clumsily managing to step on every cast member’s toes; unenlightened, yes—but there’s fun in its pure predictability.

“Mr. Science Demonstrates Othello” is among the novelty acts. Greg Allen reduces the tragedy to a lab demonstration; to illustrate “Put out the light, and then put out the light” he blows out a candle that’s burning at both ends. For “The 15 Minutes Show” a guest from the crowd is brought onstage and interviewed; the night I was there, a soft-spoken laundryman shyly described his work. In “Honestly” a cast member answers “yes or no” inquiries from the audience as truthfully as the moment or the dumb questions allow.

The actors aren’t afraid to get personal, to crowd as much real life onto their stage as possible. Bales told about a painful, year-old breakup he’s still not over. In “Halliday on Ice” Ayun acts out a bitter childhood discovery about how ice shows pick which children will ride in the big parade.

However short, some bits wear out their welcome. “Seventh Inning Enlightenment” is a silly song about yogic relaxation techniques. “Theatre Games,” which has cast members tearing through the seats as if their drugs just kicked in, seems a paltry excuse for raising everyone’s insurance premium. But overall the plays are stronger, sharper, wiser, and more personal than their earlier offerings. They’re well worth a first or 15th visit—if you can get in at all. v

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.