PAC/edge Performance Festival

Athenaeum Theatre

I Draw You You Draw Me In

Kata Meija

L’air Lair

Asminia Chremos and Kairol Rosenthal

Discarded Landscape

Weather Talking

Performance of Sleep in One Long Act Without Intermission

Live Action Cartoonists

Q: How many performance artists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: I don’t know–I left.

Like all jokes, this one has a kernel of truth. And the stereotype of boring, self-absorbed performance art was all too apt on opening weekend of the PAC/edge Festival. Now in its third year, it’s taken over the Athenaeum Theatre with pretty much nonstop overlapping performances every weekend through April 10. Though the offerings last weekend included premieres and remountings by such established companies as the Curious Theatre Branch, Theater Oobleck, and the Neo-Futurists, I aimed to see newer, less tested work–four regular shows and eight or nine free performances and installations, with part of a panel discussion thrown in for good measure. Most pieces floundered because they didn’t consider the audience’s point of view: what’s in this for me? The perfect example is Malin Lindelow’s New Agey interactive installation Wail, mounted in a janitor’s closet where water trickles over a mound of stones in the sink and recorded wailing plays in the background. Lindelow invites viewers to “add their wails to the soundscape,” but I was too irritated by the artist’s long list of written instructions, ending with the proviso that participants vocalize for a minimum of five minutes without censoring themselves, to do so.

I don’t expect work to be easy–I understand the necessity of countering the pabulum that passes as popular entertainment. Nor do I think it’s easy to judge an audience’s needs and meet them. The artists’ panel, which focused on verbal versus nonverbal approaches to performance, was instructive on this subject: of the six participants only one, writer-director Beau O’Reilly, expressed a desire to communicate to the audience. Composer-musician Michael Zerang insisted it was impossible to predict audience members’ reactions so they might as well be ignored.

Kata Mejia’s solo piece I Draw You You Draw Me In, the work commissioned for this year’s festival, at least partly acknowledges what an audience needs, though unaccountably it played only last weekend. Mejia, who exudes strength and sexuality, wears an ingeniously designed shift that slips around her body to transform her appearance at different points. She moves methodically, even ritualistically, from one “room” to another (four taped-off areas of the stage) to limn the devolution of a love relationship. Among the piece’s high points is the truest metaphorical representation of female orgasm I’ve seen on a stage: she scrabbles facedown amid the pellets she’s scattered on the floor as if urgently searching for something. Mejia suggested Demeter to me, and I amused myself by thinking of the four sections as spring, summer, fall, and winter, especially since in the last one the flour Mejia sifts over herself is like snow. This artist has a knack for the suggestive image, but the predictable repetitions built into her piece are deadly–meaningless repetitions are just plain boring.

Mejia is a 2004 MFA graduate from the School of the Art Institute–which incidentally helps fund this fest. In fact, though press materials don’t make this apparent, many of the artists I saw seem to be associated with the SAIC. One of the festival’s stated goals is to provide artists with “professional development” opportunities–and if the SAIC is paying, why shouldn’t the beneficiaries be its former students and young teachers? Still, this goal may not be compatible with another one, namely to introduce “new audiences” to Chicago performance work. They might be introduced to it, but they won’t return if it’s bad.

There was a huge jump in quality when the work was by an experienced artist–Asimina Chremos, who’s been performing in Chicago since 1997. At last year’s festival she began experimenting with dance theater in tiny spaces, and this year she chose the Athenaeum’s vending-machine room for L’Air Lair, developed with and directed by Kairol Rosenthal and performed by Chremos and singer-musician Dan Mohr. Though a clever promotional postcard makes it clear the title refers to fizzy drinks, my first thought on entering the small space, where I was sitting next to a janitor’s sink, was that I now knew where the Athenaeum’s sour smell comes from. A clever change in the rudimentary lighting suddenly reveals that Chremos and Mohr are already in the room, and their stances and janitors’ shirts and pants suggest monumental figures in the tradition of socialist heroes. Then they remove their shoes and socks, and Mohr’s beautiful voice fills the room with a traditional Corsican song while Chremos dabbles her bare feet in imaginary water (an act that incidentally places us below the water’s surface). The song has the glissandi of Middle Eastern singing, and the fact that it’s a lament by a man leaving his loved ones to go off to war (as the program informs us) gives the piece a political edge. At 20 minutes L’Air Lair is the perfect length, though at $10 it’s priced a bit steeply.

At 80 minutes Weather Talking’s premiere, Discarded Landscape, is far too long. The most recent incarnation of groups directed by Brian Torrey Scott–last year’s recipient of the fest’s commission–Weather Talking is described in press materials as the “first winner of the PAC/edge commission” now in its premiere production. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and neither does the piece, which Scott directed. Though I normally enjoy movement-based works, I found the wordless opening, in which the three players thrash about the stage with obvious angst, excruciatingly pretentious. I was silently begging them to start talking, but when they did, I wished they’d stop because the dialogue was so obscure and the delivery alternately histrionic and flat. The program lists the characters as a father, son, and daughter, and the antics onstage suggest they belong to a highly dysfunctional family. By the end it appears the mother (an offstage narrator played by Scott) has died and none of them is dealing with it very well, which somehow results in incestuous grappling between the father and daughter, then between the daughter and son. Though James Harms is engaging and often funny as the father (and the servant in a brief takeoff on Ibsen), he’s the only good thing about this nerve-jangling work.

A word of advice to Live Action Cartoonists (2002 Northwestern University grads): when your show is as tedious as Performance of Sleep in One Long Act Without Intermission, it’s probably a bad idea to make its refrain “Let me go to sleep.” This piece about mercy killing and the death penalty is cartoonish for the first hour, when it’s dominated by an annoying kiddie-show format apparently meant to justify the fact we’re being told lots of things we already know, and deadly serious for the last 30 minutes. That’s when a squash is eviscerated and two death row prisoners are forced to draw on the back wall, pointlessly re-creating a perfectly good projection, while a third must write on a table with a pen in his mouth. (I was reminded of the Monty Python torture–“Oh no–not the comfy chair!”) Though it was obviously meant to make some kind of point, the only thing I learned from the piece was that you should at all costs avoid locked-in syndrome–when all the voluntary muscles are paralyzed. The ending implies that you could be operated on without benefit of anesthetic and tortured with feeding tubes.

Perhaps the academic incubators of such work need a little more real-world savvy. But whatever the reason for these self-absorbed failures, the result is clear: “new audiences” will stay away in droves, and the performers will be left alone, still trying to screw in that damn lightbulb.

PAC/edge Performance Festival

Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport

More: See Section 2

L’Air Lair

When: Through 4/10: Sat 7, 8, 9, and 10 PM, Sun 5, 6, 7, and 8 PM. No shows 3/19 and 3/20

Price: $10

Discarded Landscape

When: Through 4/10: Sat 8 PM, Sun 3:30 PM

Price: $15

Performance of Sleep in One Long Act Without Intermission

When: Through 4/10: Fri 7 PM, Sat 10 PM

Price: $15

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