Lifeline Theatre

There used to be a street entertainer, an old man, who worked Chicago’s neighborhoods with trained chickens. He seemed sort of a cross between Uncle Remus and Dr. Lao–bizarre, a little pathetic, yet also hilarious and magical. He wore baggy, beat-up old clothes and a floppy hat, and around his neck there often hung a long string adorned with such items as a toy telephone, dolls, and bottles of beer. He played the harmonica and sang as accompaniment for the strutting dances his chickens appeared to do on command. The birds would hop up on his arm and head, then down to the sidewalk to approach laughing onlookers for a handout. As a child in the 1950s and ’60s, I saw him many times around Clark and Diversey and the Loop. On several occasions I experienced the terrified delight of putting a dime in the bird’s sharp beak, which the bird then deposited in its master’s hand; its reward was a sip of beer from a tin cup.

The man’s name was Anderson Punch–at least that was what he was called when he arrived in Chicago from Louisiana in 1911. His friends, especially on his home turf on the south side, called him Casey Jones, after the folk song he often sang; when he died in 1974 at the age of 104, that was the name the obituaries used. But kids growing up here in the 40s, 50s, and 60s knew him simply as the Chicken Man.

The Chicken Man is a central figure in Lifeline Theatre’s odd and bewitching Lizard Music. As a mysterious and magic mentor who guides a little boy on an adventurous journey, the Chicken Man uses many names over the course of the show–Charles Swan, Vincent Van Gogh, Professor Kupeckie, Pieter Brueghel the Elder–but Anderson Punch and Casey Jones aren’t among them. But then, almost nothing in Lizard Music has its real name. Chicago, for instance, is called Hogboro; the all-purpose suburb from which the story’s hero, 11-year-old Victor, ventures into Hogboro is McDonaldsville; and the body of water that Victor traverses in search of an invisible lizard island is Lake Mishagoo. Like a prepubescent version of Naked Lunch, in which William S. Burroughs turned Tangier into the nightmarish Interzone, Lizard Music transforms reality into the weird and whimsical alternative universe created by its preteen protagonist, stimulated by loneliness and late-night TV.

Adapted quite faithfully by Christina M. Calvit from Daniel Pinkwater’s book, Lizard Music is a sort of boy’s Alice in Wonderland; the hero looks through a TV screen instead of a looking glass, however, to discover this topsy-turvy variation on his own world. Left virtually alone when his bickering, stressed-out parents take a vacation (“We just need to mellow out,” they explain as they pack hurriedly), Victor stays up late to watch horror movies and National Anthem sign-offs–a change of pace from the news shows that are his regular fare. (“Walter Cronkite is my favorite star,” he explains, establishing himself as a nerd and outsider among his peers.) One night he sees a spooky band of singing lizards; though the TV station denies any knowledge of them, Victor begins running into all kinds of clues about the reptiles when he travels to Hogboro and makes the acquaintance of the Chicken Man. The meeting is initially uncomfortable for Victor: “I’m not used to black people,” he explains. “There are only five black kids in our school, and you never get a chance to talk to them, because there is always a crowd of kids around them showing how they’re not prejudiced.” But soon the Chicken Man has become Victor’s best friend, and the two set off in search of the singing saurians. Adding urgency to their quest is Victor’s fear that the world is being taken over by inhuman pod people–as proof of his theory he points to the celebrities who drone nightly on a talk show hosted by some guy with silver hair.

Ostensibly a kids’ show, Lizard Music is probably better suited to grownups. It’s a full-length two-acter, for one thing; for another, children will probably miss almost all of the 1970s TV references that Calvit and director Meryl Friedman, taking their cue from Pinkwater, have packed into the show. Allusions abound, to Cronkite and Charlie’s Angels, Roger Mudd and The Partridge Family; the taped sound track, created by Michael Bodeen, takes us on a channel-switching musical binge through the likes of Hawaii Five-0, the Archies, Mannix, and old Coca-Cola commercials (“I’d like to teach the world to sing . . . “).

Adult audiences are likely to respond with the most enjoyment to Lizard Music’s darkly hallucinatory imaginativeness. At the matinee I attended, the children seemed a little disoriented by the show’s insistent trippiness: it’s filled with strange and unexplained images, unnatural metamorphoses, and freaky colors. The weirdly lovely musical score is sung a cappella by the superb quintet of Jane Blass, Addison Grant Kerr, MaryJo Mundy, Steve Wallem, and Sandy Snyder–the lizards–under the immaculate direction of composer Douglas Wood. Blending such elements as techno-pop, disco, street-corner gospel, rap, and Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, Wood’s haunting music enhances the dreamlike quality evoked by Peter Gottlieb’s spooky lights, Melanie Parks’s eccentric costumes, Lynda White’s eerily comic masks and puppets, and Alan Donahue’s semisurreal set, whose centerpiece is a playground turntable that transforms in the flicker of a thought from a couch to a bus to a raft to a museum of long-lost memories.

Against the production’s pervasive strangeness–reinforced by Sandy Snyder’s exaggeratedly fanciful characterization of Victor’s teenybopper sister and Gregory Hollimon’s rapping, athletic Chicken Man (the original was much more peculiar, but Hollimon will do)–James Sie’s performance as Victor is crucially believable. Never stated but always understood is the fact that Lizard Music’s action is the invention of an anxious child upset by his parents’ insecure marriage and cut off from most kids his age by his own offbeat intelligence. Sie, who never condescends or caricatures, superbly captures the physical energy and emotional fragility that allow Victor to construct his unnerving and entrancing fantasy.

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