Wander the Reader clips on Redmoon Theater for a little while, and a distinct pattern emerges.
Lewis Lazare, 1996: “Last winter Redmoon Theater was contemplating a rosy future. . . . Now almost a year later Redmoon is still trying to figure out how to make the difficult transition from a small neighborhood theater to a much bigger enterprise.”
Deanna Isaacs, 2003: “Redmoon Theater launched its All Hallow’s Eve celebration—part community ritual, part artistic spectacle—in 1995 with next to no money, says artistic director Jim Lasko. . . . By 2001 the budget was $143,000 and attendance was estimated at 10,000. Last year . . . when the crowd pulled the fences down, Lasko knew Redmoon had spawned a monster he’d have to kill off. ‘The event got so popular it undermined our ability to succeed,’ Lasko says.”
Isaacs again, 2014 (headline): “Will Redmoon’s Great Chicago Fire Festival survive its own plan?“
As the quotes suggest, Redmoon had problems of scale for at least 19 of its 25 years. The company had a powerful tendency either to succeed too well for its capacities or dream too wildly for success.
So it was depressing but not surprising to see Redmoon admit defeat and shut down on Monday—that is, appropriately for a troupe whose shows have been closely bound to the seasons, on the winter solstice, the day of the longest night of the year.
The immediate trigger was a lawsuit filed by landlord Phillip Mumford, seeking to recover more than $60,000 in unpaid rent on Redmoon’s Pilsen space at 2120 S. Jefferson. Prior to that the company’s reputation was severely rattled by the famously fizzled riverfront Fire Festival of 2014 and its 2015 successor, which burned only too well, sending embers wafting down on the Burnham Park Yacht Club.
But the real issue was always and ever Redmoon’s essentially contradictory impulses. Coartistic directors Lasko and Frank Maugeri seemed determined to hold on to their messy, funky, feisty, dreamy, lefty, Brechtian/Artaudian aesthetic even as they pushed past mere pageants or neighborhood projects and chose to create “site-specific spectacles of massive proportions” (their words) requiring a close relationship with the powers that be. At some crucial moment in their development they apparently decided to square the circle of civic engagement by becoming official and oppositional at the same time. They’d be Bread & Puppet crossbred with Cirque du Soleil, the San Francisco Mime Troupe synergized with City Hall. Hubris for the masses.
Deanna Isaacs caught the paradox well in that 2014 column, asking whether the Fire Festival would survive its own plan. Noting that Redmoon’s original concept “called for Chicagoans to build flammable effigies of the thing that’s worst about their neighborhoods,” which would then be thrown into a bonfire, she argued that the idea Lasko, Maugeri, and company ultimately went with—a symbolic recapitulation of the 1871 Chicago fire leading to an inspirational rebirth—was equally tone-deaf with regard to the needs of the city’s promoters. “So Chicago is largely presented as a city of victims,” she wrote, “its hapless residents defined by the personal and societal evils they’ve managed to survive.”
You’ve got to wonder how pleased Mayor Rahm would’ve been, even if the pyrotechnics had gone off without a hitch.
To be clear: I’m not saying that Redmoon sold out, or tried to sell out. Not by a long shot. I’m saying it operated at nosebleed heights of naivete.
And it seems God protects the innocent, at least for a while. Given the tensions involved, it’s amazing that Redmoon’s partnership with the city got as far as it did and yielded so many enchantments. Redmoon’s 2004 spectacle, Sink. Sank. Sunk.—the true first Fire Festival—featured an agitprop story line involving a villain called Boss Man. But what made it unforgettable was a glowing, late-summer cortege floating down the South Branch of the Chicago River, past Chinatown’s Ping Tom Park. Just as memorable was the outsize lantern procession that opened Millennium Park, lighting up the snaky BP pedestrian bridge like a fire dragon. And the acrobatic surrealism of Last of My Species: The Fearless Songs of Laarna Cortaan. And the drama of Loves Me . . . Loves Me Not played out in Jackson Park lagoon on the roofs of flooded houses.
I’ve got a million of these images in my head thanks to Redmoon. There’s something ancient, magically resonant about events created for the outdoors. About fire in the night. Even the lack of upholstered-seat comfort is a prod to the imagination. The Redmoon folks recognized that and, on their best days, managed to reproduce it for Chicago. The fault lies not in their aesthetics but in their dialectics. As the letter announcing the company’s closure says, “There is no funding model for this civic and social artistic vision.”