Cook County Theatre Department

The Pup at Theatre: Hidden Surprise Shows

Moveable Feast Theatre Company

at Sheffield’s Beer and Wine Garden

David Letterman may have done much to popularize banality, with his cast of intentionally inane characters like the Guy Under the Stairs, Flunky the Late Night Clown, and of course Larry Bud Mellman. But the folks at Cook County Theatre Department and Moveable Feast Theatre Company have refined his self-conscious, fatuous approach to its most dramatic essence, creating delightful theater pieces out of seeming incompetence. In their new works, both companies orchestrate carefully tooled ineptitude with great finesse, assembling hour-long pieces that seem almost devoid of content. Yet the exquisite dreadfulness of their performances elevates inadequacy to the level of art.

Cook County Theatre Department have long cultivated their own brand of self-conscious ineptitude. It took them five shows to become fluent in their prosaic theatrical language, but they created a pedestrian masterpiece in their last production, Minutes and Seconds, the culmination of two and a half years’ work. With its intricate mechanical set, sweeping visual design, and eight-person poker-faced cast, it was a magnum opus of jumbled mundanity. With their sixth production, Elimination, they’ve distilled their brand of theater even further, creating their purest, most economical, most successfully empty production to date.

A collaborative effort by performers Brian Mendes, Chris Sullivan, and Vicki Walden and director David Pavkovic, Elimination takes place in a 13-foot-square playing area fenced in on all sides by the audience. Above the performers eight bare bulbs hang from a grid of copper pipes. Below them the floor is an inch deep in salt. The actors rarely speak in anything louder than what my long-suffering father used to call “inside voices,” and the piece as a whole consists of tiny gestures and subtle glances, most of them intentionally unremarkable or ungraceful (several dancelike sections, in which the performers are paired with a weighted aluminum can, are some of the most engagingly maladroit in Cook County’s extensive repertoire).

As in all of the group’s best work, metaphors arise from the physical world, not from poetic flights of fancy: what we see, even though it’s wholly ordinary, is enough. Their bare-bones salt and copper set (designed by Lara Furniss) is as suggestive as Janis Kounellis’s great sculptures of ground coffee and burnished steel. When the performers appear, barefoot in black-and-white formal attire and pancake makeup, each crosses noncommittally to his or her designated corner and casts a long, unreadable glance at the others; it’s as though they were preparing for a three-way boxing match atop a wedding cake.

The metaphor of a boxing match serves this enigmatic production well, for one of its central concerns–if it can be said to have them–seems to be the close connection between intimacy and violence, the natural outgrowth of such cramped quarters. In one of the evening’s recurring motifs, Mendes, the perfect comic chump, tries to force Walden, the only woman, to stand in a particular but apparently arbitrary spot. Eventually Mendes draws a circle in the salt, snaps his fingers, points to the circle, and barks at her to stand there, as though beckoning a dog. Walden, whose steely countenance remains unchanged throughout the evening, sometimes acquiesces and sometimes offers Mendes handfuls of salt instead, metaphorically rubbing it into his gaping insecurities. Then everything is forgotten and the performers move on to execute their next seemingly random task.

Still, the threat of coercion rarely dissipates, though it’s often sublimated under layers of seeming nonsense. All the while the performers are telling one another anecdotes about their family members, for example, they’re burning holes through one another with their intense gazes; it’s as if everyone wants to dominate everyone else. When real violence does erupt, however, it’s immediately defused by absurdly obvious statements. When Walden and Mendes clasp each other’s shoulders and nearly begin to brawl, Walden calmly says, “You’re my friend, so it’s not violent, it’s playful and funny.”

In this unpredictable world where freedom of motion is greatly limited–the stage always seems crowded even with only three people on it–the performers understandably spend much time trying to carve out spaces for themselves. Often they clear away salt from small areas as though staking out their turf. Other times they roll metal cans along every contour of their bodies, as though redefining their physical boundaries, reminding the others of their physical integrity. But there’s so much unavoidable physical interaction–they can never seem to keep out of one another’s way–it becomes clear that the only truly personal space is internal. As Sullivan explains in one of the piece’s rare lyrical passages, he can feel a vaguely round object within his system, and if he can get it out he will put it in a neighbor’s yard and, “exposed to the sun, it will finally know what it feels like to be me.”

Despite the seemingly haphazard structure of Elimination, Pavkovic’s orchestration is exquisite. A professional musician, he not surprisingly builds the evening out of intricate rhythms and patterns of movement, many of which recur at sudden high speeds in a kind of musical recapitulation. The cast, all Cook County veterans, are so at home with their cryptic material that they never falter for a moment, always diving headfirst into pointless endeavor after pointless endeavor. Yet the piece is not the least bit self-indulgent: despite their expressionless faces, the performers somehow acknowledge that they, like us, have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing, making the entire affair absurdly comical.

Though Elimination is about everything and nothing at once, it does seem to address defining the self, discovering one’s literal boundaries. Yet such knowledge is finally inadequate, the piece suggests: the human imagination thirsts for more than the literal. Sullivan begins the piece by slowly raising a hand to his brow as though shielding his eyes from the sun and announcing, “Look! Here come the elk!” He continues to spot them throughout the evening, as though reassuring himself of their (purely symbolic) presence. And like Sullivan’s elk, Cook County has envisioned something big, beautiful, mysterious, and powerful in this new work.

The Pup at Theatre: Hidden Surprise Shows is to Elimination what Cheez Whiz is to Camembert.

Imagine the creators of Barney–bitter, frustrated, sapped of any talent they might ever have possessed–stoned in a room full of crappy puppets. They would probably produce something more sophisticated than Moveable Feast’s sublimely awful The Pup at Theater (even the title is moronic). Brett Neveu’s intentionally disastrous two-person puppet show, performed with Doug Simpson, takes the concept of lowbrow to magnificent new depths. Each of the 40 or so sketches–complete with mangy hand puppets, hackneyed character voices, and woefully inadequate sound effects–is ingeniously juvenile and delightfully vapid.

Neveu and Simpson station themselves onstage behind two open briefcases, out of which their lame cavalcade of puppetry appears. Superman flies into view and treats us to a terrible Neil Diamond impersonation. Kermit the Frog begins to sing “The Rainbow Connection,” then hollers, “This is a shit song!” regaining his composure only after a long swig from a whiskey bottle. A curious animallike sock recites his original poem, “Cha cha is a dance / La la is a song / My dog is stupid / And I put oven cleaner in his food.” When a porcelain hand appears and grabs the face of one of the puppeteers, his only line is, “Damn porcelain hand!”

It gets worse. Not only are these rapid-fire sketches entirely pointless, more often than not they dissolve into true shamelessness before expiring. When a cow won’t stop repeating a meaningless line, for example, a long wooden cane appears and bashes the cow into unconsciousness. Then the cane takes a bow, shouting, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen! I’m here all week! And I’m just trying to keep sober!”

Every few minutes the show bogs down as Neveu and Simpson unpack new puppets from numbered cardboard boxes and repack the ones just used. These long transitions are the only unintentionally incompetent moments in an evening that otherwise gallops along with a giddy momentum. Neveu and Simpson–brilliant impersonators of truly talentless puppeteers–sustain their inanity for an hour, inventing so many imaginative manifestations of ineptitude that they reveal just how talented they really are.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Lara Furniss.