Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde


at Voltaire

By Justin Hayford

Theater is not a decorous place where people go on their best behavior.

–Charles Ludlam

The 1990s have seen an explosion of intelligence and daring among the city’s avant-garde (if such a term can still be used nonironically), as groups like the Cook County Theater Department, Doorika (recently relocated to New York), Goat Island, Lucky Pierre, and the hyperprolific Curious Theatre Branch have risen from tentative fumblings to mature sophistication. Addling the brain and confounding the senses, these companies push audiences to think rather than merely spectate. Even when they’re awful, they’re awful in fascinating ways. Meanwhile, mainstream commercial theater sinks more money into splashy irrelevance and is rewarded with accolades from a fawning press that has ever more difficulty differentiating between art and an investment opportunity.

No one will ever make a buck off Nomenil’s work; the program calls the company a “so-far-not-making-any-profit organization.” Let’s hope they remain so, never pandering to commercial taste or propriety. For despite financial failure, Nomenil consistently does what multimillion-dollar Broadway behemoths do only once a decade: intensify life. In the words of playwright Charles Ludlam, their brand of theater provides a “heightened experience–or much more distilled experience than perhaps you would get just sitting around having a cup of coffee.” Spending an hour with Nomenil is exhausting. And you’d best take a long nap before you attempt Nomenil’s newest supernova, Ludlam’s Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde.

With the best of the fringe dwellers, Nomenil has been slogging away for the last three years, developing an idiosyncratic brand of high-camp subversion, struggling to excise the vestiges of convention that defanged their early work. By the spring of 1996, they’d grown a full set of razor-sharp teeth, which they used to tear through their magnificent insurrection Like Our Parents Smoking Cornsilk, a show so well crafted and outrageous it seemed to shake the very foundations of Voltaire. When they reopen the show this weekend, running it back to back with Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde, they may bring the place crashing down.

With Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde Nomenil prove themselves as adept at interpreting an established text as they are at creating work from scratch. In Ludlam’s play, based on Moliere’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Nomenil has found an ideal vehicle to launch Starf*cker, a “division” of the company “dedicated to turning previously released material upside down & inside out, if you will.” Ludlam, founder of New York’s influential Ridiculous Theatrical Company, was perhaps the greatest American camp artist; his legacy has informed Nomenil’s work since its inception. It’s only fitting that the company begin a new phase in their career by honoring his genius and redoubling their efforts to defy conventional expectations.

Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde is a twisted satire on New York’s post-post-neo-neo art world, where artists trip over themselves trying to find ways to be newer than new and obscurer than obscure. They dress in hallucinogenic hues, paint their faces in primary colors and geometric shapes, and clump their hair into Day-Glo towers resembling monstrous dust balls pulled from Peter Max’s vacuum cleaner. Swaddled in cocoons of narcissism, they believe all the world’s problems stem from a lack of appreciation for their work. Into their midst lumbers Rufus Foufas, a wealthy grocery store owner and patronizing art patron who snaps up art like a trader pocketing soy futures. He won’t let his daughter marry Newton Entwhistle, a Milquetoast, because he’s not a member of the avant-garde, so Foufas’s maid cooks up a scheme to transform him into Nicky Newfangle, a make-believe artist so beyond the fringe he’s avant-derriere–literally ass backward.

Under Allen Conkle’s direction, Nomenil’s nine cast members attack Ludlam’s script with unwavering intelligence and a flagrant disregard for theatrical niceties. Everything here is too big, too loud, too fast, and inappropriate, yet for the most part Conkle keeps the company’s mania delicately poised, like a speed-freak ballerina on pointe. The cast clearly understand the conventions of traditional farce but apply them only when they feel like it. At other times they break into interpretive dance or poetic verse, turn incidental lines into grand proclamations, or stop and smile sheepishly at the audience as if apologizing for the whole tumultuous mess. In short, Nomenil keeps its audience in a state of perpetual suspense–it’s impossible to predict what might happen next, as the characters’ accents change from minute to minute and cartoon sound effects intrude without warning. In Ludlam’s words, Nomenil has stretched the medium to the inconceivable. If John Waters and Tex Avery teamed up to do Feydeau it would look a lot like this.

Nomenil’s explosive approach is not universally successful, however. Occasional moments of understatement highlight the need for more nuance, and certain stretches seem little more than shouting matches. And while Conkle’s uber-stagy staging heightens the evening’s absurdity and unpredictability, at times it leaves the actors crowded all the way upstage, where their actions become inconsequential.

Living in a culture that too often values packaging over content, it’s easy to become impatient with Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde. But even the production’s gaping flaws give it humanity. Hell, these are a bunch of kids running around in a basement; this is an experiment, not a commodity, a work with all the rough edges left in. It does what the avant-garde is supposed to do: make us impatient at a theater’s unwillingness to spell things out, make us impatient at our own inability to comprehend, and, most important, make us impatient that more companies don’t try our patience in a manner this thrilling.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde theater still.