Crime and Punishment: A (Mis)Guided Environmental Tour With Literary Pretensions at the Neo-Futurarium, through April 11
By Jack Helbig
With his high forehead, owlish round glasses, and artfully trimmed goatee, Greg Allen looks like a professor or a wise senior physician. But beneath that hardened egghead exterior lurks a trickster, someone who glories in tipping over the applecart—especially when his acts of theatrical mischief also serve some carefully considered larger purpose.
Allen’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial two years ago, for example, could never have been confused with more reverent literary adaptations by Northwestern grads. Instead of working to conserve Kafka’s narrative voice—or even the structure of this unfinished novel—Allen focused on re-creating the work’s mood of paranoia. This he accomplished with the help of some simple stage effects, including a battalion of doors on wheels, and a cast whose performances were at once intensely physical, anally precise, and yet entirely naturalistic.
Likewise Allen’s brainchild Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind broke all the rules when it first opened a little more than nine years ago. Devoted to delivering 30 performancelike plays in 60 minutes or die trying, the show is too playful, too unafraid of entertainment to qualify as performance art. Nor is it mere comedy, even though to the untrained eye Too Much Light looks a lot like a Second City revue: over the years it’s addressed such serious issues as homophobia and self-esteem.
But it’s the relationship Allen and his fellow Neo-Futurists have cultivated with their audience that truly sets this group apart. The very structure of Too Much Light maximizes audience interaction: audience members are given false names at the door, they roll a die to determine how much they’ll pay for admission, and they’re encouraged to shout out which piece they’d like to see next. Even when the Neo-Futurists are offstage, they refuse to acknowledge the fourth wall. They chat with audience members before and after the show—and during the week via the Internet, on the Neo-Futurists’ sometimes trivial, sometimes fascinating, always chatty site (www.neofuturist.org), moderated by Too Much Light cast member Dave Awl (“Day Voll”).
The exceptionally relaxed Neo-Futurist attitude toward the audience also plays a large role in Allen’s latest effort, on which he collaborated with Connor Kalista. Crime and Punishment: A (Mis)Guided Environmental Tour With Literary Pretensions combines elements from Too Much Light shows, spook houses, self-guided museum tours, site-specific performance pieces, and the “promenade” style of theater popularized by the Chicago Actors Ensemble in the early 90s.
This show would literally be nothing without the audience, who do most of the performing. Each audience member is given a Walkman and an audiotape and sent on a tour of the Neo-Futurists’ 13-room space. Each room contains at least one installation, though none of the pieces are very elaborate. The two most complicated and compelling are in the first two rooms, which everyone visits together—in one, Kalista is bound and blindfolded, and in the other, Allen is gagged and tied to a chair. More often, however, the installations are minimal affairs. One is merely a Books on Tape version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment sitting on a pedestal at the entrance to the so-called Hall of Presidents. Another is a stack of cards, an ink pad, and a roll of tape on the “evidence creation” table in the Neo-Futurist State Park.
Each audience member is given different taped instructions for each room. Meanwhile Allen, Kalista, and their small cast spend most of their time facilitating—walking from room to room, watching what’s happening, performing minor maintenance, and handing out stars to people who have completed their tasks in a timely manner. Audience members are all asked to perform different tasks. While I was running to the kitchen to fill a glass three-quarters full of water, others were dashing from one room to another carrying suspicious briefcases. Still others were crowding around a poster busily pressing their inked fingertips against whichever sins they’d committed on a long printout of crimes ranging from minor traffic violations to software piracy to armed robbery.
Somehow, everyone’s activities mesh with everyone else’s. For example, someone took the glass of water I filled and left it in another room, where later in the show I encountered it and was asked to drink it down, trusting that it hadn’t been tampered with. Other audience members were required to pass judgment on fellow audience members’ crimes.
It’s sheer brilliance, if you think about it. Allen and Kalista have gone Tom Sawyer one better: he only managed to get his friends to whitewash the fence, while Allen and Kalista have tricked us into doing the entire performance we’re simultaneously watching.
What’s also fascinating is that they’ve created in this show a compelling model for society, as dozens of people following very different agendas manage to interact cooperatively. They also make the point that many of us pretty much do whatever we’re instructed to do, for the sake of the show going on. We’re invited to imagine that if the conditions were right—if an audience member were sufficiently suggestible, if a potential victim were perceived as particularly aberrant, and if both killer and victim thought their actions were “just theater”—someone could actually kill someone else because he or she had been told to do so.
There were numerous times during the two performances I attended when other audience members commented on my behavior. In one case, a total stranger accused me of “hogging the ink pad” even though there were several other pads on the table. Another stranger asked me, “What did you do wrong?” when I was instructed to lie down as if I’d been murdered. Something about the way Allen and Kalista have structured the performance seems to give everyone license to judge everyone else.
But how Allen and Kalista’s show works as an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel is anybody’s guess. Other critics have speculated that the show explores the novel’s themes and issues. And it does if you interpret those themes and issues so broadly that they could just as easily apply to any detective novel or book about a real-life crime. Despite the show’s title, Allen and Kalista’s work owes much to Michel Foucault’s landmark study of criminality and the prison, Discipline and Punish: he discusses the ways that order in an industrial society depends on a hyperconformist culture and people’s willingness to police one another constantly.
It would be just as narrow to call this a stage adaptation of Foucault’s ideas, however, as to say it’s an adaptation of Dostoyevsky. Significantly, Allen and Kalista helpfully provide the audience with a whole shelfful of books, ranging from Nabokov’s Despair and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find to works by Foucault and an Amnesty International publication put out in 1989. They’ve neatly labeled this shelf “bibliography.”
It’s one of the show’s drier jokes—and this is an event full of irony and dry wit—that no one would ever have the time during Crime and Punishment to read the books on display. Nor could they listen to all the tapes in the Books on Tape version of Crime and Punishment, which is also available.
The real source for the show is no single literary work but Too Much Light itself and Allen’s Neo-Futurist brain. Only an audience acclimated to the Too Much Light aesthetic and the Neo-Futurists’ relatively unrestricted roles for the audience would be able to adjust—without anxiety and without feeling ripped off—to a performance in which the performers and audience are one. And once Allen and Kalista have created such a world, they’re free to explore its many themes and issues. Today it’s crime and punishment. Tomorrow it might be pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility—even war and peace, if they’re feeling ambitious.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Raskolinsky.