at the Organic Theater


at the Organic Theater

Reconstructing (the Temple) From Memory is an enormously generous performance piece, yet paradoxically, its generosity doesn’t come cheap. The piece is generous because of the wealth of extraordinary moments it offers; but it forces its audience to engage those moments, to use them to reconstruct meaning in a very active way. I have a special fondness for Reconstructing (the Temple). I’ve seen the piece in two previous incarnations, at N.A.M.E. Gallery about a year ago and at the Organic Theater this past summer. This new version is by far the most complex and compelling. Writer and director Michael K. Meyers and associate director Vickie Hoch have shaped the piece into an elegant, lyrical reflection on remembering, forgetting, and the flow of time.

At the center of Reconstructing (the Temple) is Meyers as the Story Teller, a mercurial guide who both mystifies and demystifies events within the piece. He explains the “premises” of the piece in a way that makes them seem both very clear and yet very elliptical and ambiguous. For example, the Story Teller explains that children are important within the performance, not because they are children but because they are “pivotal moments” in one’s experience of the time of one’s life, and because they are smaller, which in the language of perspective suggests that they are further away. These children, all from Chicago’s Franklin Fine Arts Magnet School and all extraordinarily self-possessed, sometimes serve as “stand-ins” for the adult performers and at other times as echoes of the adult exchanges. At one moment, for example, Alex Kerr and Richard Duslack as the Men Who Change to Meet the Needs of the Body exchange Beckettian reflections on the nature of the world. “Did something make you think of something else again?” “There are so many ways to hurt yourself . . . so many sharp edges.” The dialogue is compelling enough, and when repeated by Chris Cigan and Franklin Reed, the Boys Who Are There for Perspective, it seems even more haunting.

There is little narrative coherence, little story sense or plot in Reconstructing (the Temple), although the images and texts often have story elements. The piece is moved forward not by a plot, by cause and effect, or any sense of chronology, but by a dream logic that makes anything seem possible. The piece is, in fact, framed as the dream of Manny Jacobson, the Dreamer. The images we see, the Story Teller explains, are all happening inside the Dreamer’s head. The Dreamer, we are told, is trying to “reconstruct the temple from memory,” though all he knows of the temple is what he has gathered from “rumors.” The temple, it seems, is Meaning, the structure within which life makes sense. The figures that appear in the Dreamer’s dream are components of that structure, the fragments of conversations and shards of images we perpetually assemble into a coherent whole, and also fellow searchers for and builders of this temple. None of these figures, not even the Dreamer himself, is really a “character.” Rather, they are descriptions of characters, functions rather than individuals, as, for example, Eric Perez, the Boy Who Remembers His Lines, who methodically repeats “Yes sir. No sir. It wasn’t me sir,” to questions never asked. Perhaps because these figures are nothing more than their own descriptions, their search for and attempts to reconstruct the temple seem especially urgent and especially poignant.

Two special strengths of Michael Meyers’s performance work stand out in Reconstructing (the Temple). The first of these is his capacity for organizing elaborate, visually elegant worlds populated by a range of physical types. Because performance art is a relatively young genre it is, with notable exceptions, often the province of young, hip performers. The presence of both older and younger actors in Reconstructing (the Temple), and in Meyers’s work generally, adds perspective, not only in the aesthetic sense but also psychologically. Especially compelling in this performance is Manny Jacobson, the Dreamer. Jacobson makes the organized ambiguities of Meyers’s texts seem like age-old wisdom. For example, to reconstruct the temple, he explains gently, thoughtfully, “you need your nose. You need your hands. You need a piece of string and a place to keep your things. You need an unimpeded view of everything.” The second strength of this piece is the lyricism of Meyers’s texts. None of these are self-consciously metaphorical; all are very cool and spare, witty sometimes and moving other times. The language of Reconstructing (the Temple) From Memory in itself is worth going to hear.

Sharon Evans’s Candyland: The Saga of Helen Brach and Her Poodle Sugar is also a generous performance piece. It’s more immediately accessible than Reconstructing (the Temple) From Memory, in large measure because of Evans’s skill at manipulating contemporary images and the almost folkloric quality of the Helen Brach story: rich, eccentric, animal-loving heiress to the Brach’s candy fortune vanishes without a trace, perhaps done in by her handyman. In Candyland we get the story from two points of view: Helen’s and poodle Sugar’s. Sugar’s view of things, as it turns out, is much more accurate.

We first meet Helen, played by Sharon Evans in white beehive wig and frumpy pink satin suit, and Sugar, played by Catherine Evans in white almost-beehive wig and poodle skirt embossed with pictures of Lady and the Tramp, as they confront the reality of “Candy Man” Frank Brach’s death. With her husband gone, Helen begins to speculate on her own fate: “Frank, can you fix it so that I go to the right place . . . to animal heaven?” At this point Sugar turns to the audience and observes, “Most dogs look to their owners for stability. I lost out in that department.”

The performance consists of images from the Brach story and comments by Sugar. Some of these are hysterical. Mark Richard, as an ad man, attempts to interest Helen in a new ad campaign for Brach’s candies only to discover that Sugar is really the force to be reckoned with. She attacks him, buries her head in his crotch, leaps onto his lap, and ultimately has him pleading to be rescued as Helen sits absorbed in Sugar’s “baby pictures.”

Other moments are more somber. Sugar and Helen are seated on Frank’s grave trying to contact him with a Ouija board. Suddenly Sugar smells “doggie doom.” “When there was a death in the pet store,” Sugar explains, “they burned the dead in a steel can in the alley. That smell of doggie doom filled my nose so I couldn’t smell anything else. Now it’s coming off Candy Lady. It’s floating my way.”

Like Michael Meyers, Sharon Evans is a gifted writer with a knack for making figurative language sound ordinary. Some of her best texts in this piece go to Sugar, including, for example, Sugar’s “doggie dream” in which she picks up a tiny Helen who is begging to be taken care of. Catherine Evans deserves a Jeff citation for best performance by an actress playing a poodle: her poodle mannerisms and doggie hipness carry the piece over the occasional textual awkwardnesses and the moments of plain silliness. Speaking of silliness, Candyland is great at the level of “stuff.” There is some great stuff in this piece: everything from a suit coat embroidered with candy to lots of little windup poodles.

Candyland even ends well, in a way. Helen goes to animal heaven where she belongs, and Sugar gets the mansion and an open invitation to Brach’s board meetings. I once heard Sharon Evans propose a series of performance portraits of Chicago’s “rich and famous.” Candyland makes me eager for her reflections on Bonnie Swearingen, W. Clement Stone, and Sugar Rautbord, especially if they have pets . . .