“Come on, people!” Rich Cotovsky shouts through a black toy megaphone in his distinctive drowsy style. “Abbie Hoffman died for your sins!” But the people passing by Daley Plaza don’t even raise their heads.
A few actors are handing out flyers that list all of the shows in the seventh annual Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins theater festival–54 in all, the work of 29 theater companies. Some of the people pushing by take a flyer. Most don’t.
Street clown Drew Richardson puts on a red nose and juggles little plungers, but even that elicits only sneering half smiles. It’s another bitch of a hot day, and everyone looks pissed off.
“Three days of virtual unreality!” Cotovsky shouts, with an edge in his voice that makes his festival even less inviting.
This is the fourth year in a row that Cotovsky and company have kicked off their three-day, more or less round-the-clock festival with a procession from Daley Plaza to the Mary-Arrchie theater space, a block south of Irving Park.
Cotovsky’s troops were supposed to gather at the plaza at two, but at a few minutes to three, the time the procession is supposed to begin, there don’t seem to be enough people to carry the big festival sign–actually an awkward collection of placards held together with rope and broomsticks. One placard says “Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins”; another says “Three-Day Theatre Festival.”
“I usually am a little more organized,” says Cotovsky. “But this year with Tracers I got a little behind the eight ball. My feeling though is, if they knew about it two months in advance 30 of them should be here.”
Two more actors show up, Cotovsky gives the word, and together they pick up the sign and head down Dearborn. Several steps into the journey the sign falls apart, and they have to stop to fix it.
In past years Cotovsky worked harder at making himself look like the quintessential 60s radical and yippie leader, letting his beard and hair grow, wearing a worn red, white, and blue shirt. This year he looks like a 70s-era Vietnam vet, with sideburns, mustache gone wild, and army fatigue pants–a look prompted by Tracers, the play about Vietnam war veterans that’s now having a good run at Mary-Arrchie.
He seems more reserved and solemn than usual, and his attempts at comedy are tinged with bitterness. The only time he gets aroused is when the ragtag procession passes someone selling StreetWise. Then he gets positively livid. “Come on! Give this man a break! Forty-five percent of the homeless in this country are Vietnam veterans! Help this guy, people! He just wants to get a meal tonight!”
Every block or so another child of the Reagan era comes up and asks in all innocence, “Who’s Abbie Hoffman?” During the first two miles only two people seem to know for sure who Hoffman was. A man with a European accent says, “What does it say about Hoffman’s philosophy that he was a suicide?”
When the man’s out of earshot Cotovsky, who’s also a pharmacist, grumbles, “I wonder if it was a suicide. It’s awfully hard to die on 200 phenobarbitals.”
At the corner of North and Clark a bald old man wearing light blue slacks spits out, “I wouldn’t cross the street for Abbie Hoffman.”
“You wouldn’t?” Cotovsky says sarcastically.
Cotovsky smiles and mutters, “That’s your opinion.”
The man has already looked away.
At the theater that night most of the seats have been moved into the lobby and replaced by mismatched couches, armchairs, and kitchen chairs, as well as several mattresses down in front.
Only about 20 people are in the room at 7 PM when the festival begins, mostly cast members from Tracers and from the theaters that will be doing the first few shows.
Cotovsky enters, a ratty flag draped over his shoulders, the stripes faded to pink, the stars gray on a field of dirty blue. His impersonation consists of a pastiche of Hoffman material, much of which makes sense only if you remember the minutiae of the 60s. “My name is Abbie, and I am from Muskogee, Oklahoma. Actually I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Me and the birth-control pill were the only things to come out of Worcester–and a lot of people wish the pill had come first.”
The audience listens patiently but laughs only sporadically. When Cotovsky’s Hoffman slyly refers to having levitated the Pentagon during an antiwar protest it’s hard to tell how many in the audience stare blankly because they don’t know what he’s talking about and how many stare blankly because they don’t think the stunt, recounted in Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, was very funny. But at the end of Cotovsky’s act, when he shouts “Yippie! Yippie!” they all applaud wildly.
The last time I checked out this festival Cotovsky stayed in character throughout, introducing each act with a crazed, aggressive wit that made it seem as if he’d truly been possessed by Hoffman’s spirit. This year he remains behind the scenes, rarely introducing acts, and never in character. Asked why, he’s vague and noncommittal, muttering something about “introducing acts when I have to.”
The loss of Hoffman’s presence takes some of the wind out of the festival’s sails. The fest was originally conceived as a way to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Woodstock, but it’s Hoffman’s legend that looms large–despite the Woodstock sound track that plays during the short breaks between acts.
In the early days the festival seemed like a great alternative to the staid and stupid Bush era, an incubator of sorts for broke theater companies with daring ideas. These days everyone’s alternative, even the GOP–and no one has anything to say, even the fringe.
The first evening of the fest is one brain-numbing show after another. The only consistently decent work turns out to be Rush Pearson’s one-man show Diary of a Madman, which has been performed every year.
A pattern soon becomes obvious. Shows just before large-cast productions are well attended. Shows scheduled before smaller-cast works are not. There are definitely theater aficionados in the audience, but most people seem to be friends and family and actors killing time before their own shows.
I doze off during a fest favorite, Gas Mask 101, about students at Southern Illinois University during the Vietnam era, and decide it’s time to go home.
Cotovsky’s in the box office in the middle of an argument with a customer.
“I just want to go out to my car,” the guy says.
“That’s not how this works. For $5 you can stay as long as you like. But if you leave you have to pay another $5.”
“Oh, come on. I’ve just been here five minutes.”
“I could sell you a $10 all-day pass for another $5, then you could go to your car and come back.”
“Oh shit,” the man whines, and goes back into the auditorium.
By Sunday evening the festival’s running an hour and a half behind schedule. Cotovsky doesn’t seem to notice. Having had just over four hours of sleep in the last three days, he’s pretty much on automatic pilot. At some point he started introducing acts again. Now he stands onstage, a little unsteady, head turning birdlike from side to side. Then he looks at his paper, squints out at the audience, rambles a bit, forgets what group he’s talking about, looks back down at his paper, squints back out at the audience.
“Do I look tired?” he asks someone when he steps offstage.
“Oh, Rich,” the woman answers, “you always look tired.”
The theater looks like it’s the site of a huge slumber party. Some audience members snooze on the couches. Others sprawl across the mattresses in front, staring glassy-eyed at the stage. Pizza boxes are scattered around the room, and actors and audience members help themselves to the cold, congealed slices. The Dumpster out front is overflowing with cans, bottles, boxes, and cartons.
For the most part the shows are better this evening. Everyone’s working with a kind of uninhibited looseness. The next to last show is yet another performance of Gas Mask 101, in which Cotovsky plays a stoned college kid nicknamed Swami. He moves with the out-of-sync deliberation of someone on drugs or in desperate need of sleep.
He’s also in the last piece of the night, a tongue-in-cheek ritual in which seven men solemnly walk onstage, pick up a flag-draped body, and carry it to the podium. Then they unwrap the body, revealing a very pale Cotovsky dressed as Hoffman. In the background is the Doors’ “The End.”
Cotovsky’s Hoffman delivers a shorter version of his opening speech, but this time the details come out sounding vaguely religious. Maybe it’s the solemn way Cotovsky delivers lines like “I was given 14 days for laughing, 10 days for smiling, and 2 for throwing a kiss.” Or maybe it’s Jim Morrison droning “This is the end.”
Cotovsky pronounces the festival an incredible success and promises another great one next year. “Our eighth, for the Chicago Eight. Next year we will have the return of Bobby Seale!”
Finally he leads the audience in a loud chant: “Fuck it! Fuck it! When you are backed up against the wall and you have nowhere else to turn–fuck it!” When he has the whole audience chanting this mantra he starts shouting, “Yippie! Yippie! Yippie!”
Abruptly he stops. The seven guys wrap him back up in the flag and slowly carry him out of the theater while people throw flowers in his wake.
There’s a moment of silence, and then the Beatles come on. It’s “The End” from Abbey Road, and the guitars and drums energize the audience. “Oh yeah! All right! Are you gonna be in my dreams tonight?” As if on cue, people start leaping onto the stage to dance. When I leave at 2 AM only Cotovsky and a few festival organizers aren’t dancing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Jon Randolph.