By Jack Helbig
Jeff Dorchen’s sitting alone in a north-side restaurant, looking more like a gnome than usual: hunched over, eyes red, tufts of hair sprouting from the fringes of his head. Tired of his day job, estranged from his longtime girlfriend, and between major projects, Dorchen’s been mulling over his options.
It’s not like he doesn’t have options, he’ll remind you. He’s been keeping busy, though it seems he has fewer choices all the time. He’s applied to a handful of writing programs, and every one’s turned him down so far. He’s devoted more energy to his klezmer band, Schloinkeh, but the most he can say about the group is “we are the best possible band for people at our skill level.” He’s done a few “little performance things” around town, one-night collaborations with choreographer Bob Eisen and performer Paula Killen. He’s even thought about reviving a play he wrote in college, Earth Be Damned, a science fiction satire about a group of lesbian separatists traveling to another planet to create a world without men.
The only thing Dorchen hasn’t done lately is put on a new show. For a writer and performer known for his wit and energy, he’s been strangely silent. His last project–a solo vehicle about a Jewish folksinger called The Life and Times of Jewboy Cain–was staged more than a year ago. Last season was one of the few in recent memory without a new Dorchen play.
Eight years ago, as a founding member of Theater Oobleck, Dorchen was at the center of the hottest avant-garde theater troupe in Chicago. His Oobleck plays–including The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard, Ugly’s First World, and Mysticeti and the Mandelbrot Set–were among the group’s best work. In the almost five years since he split with Oobleck, Dorchen has grown from a writer of sprawling, entertaining pastiches to a more focused, original thinker specializing in pieces for one or two actors. These later works–Birth of a Frenchman, The Croaking Fascist and the Armband Variations, and The Life and Times of Jewboy Cain–have earned him reviews as glowing as any he’s ever received. Yet now Dorchen looks like he’s had enough.
It’s a common complaint for artists approaching middle age to wonder if they’ve wasted their time. But it should be different for Dorchen–he’s only 34 and has already achieved a fair amount of recognition and support. He’s two years into a three-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation–he gets $10,000 annually as part of a $50,000-a-year gift he shares with Oobleck, the Curious Theatre Branch, Redmoon Theater, and Jellyeye. But Dorchen admits that he’s been distracted–paralyzed, really–by an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction.
“If I could just finish my postmodern science fiction novel,” he grumbles suddenly, then falls quiet. A few minutes later he mutters, “Things were great with my girlfriend when my car worked. But when it broke down, she had to drive me to and from work, and that drive put certain strains on our relationship.” He sighs.
Why, when his world seems so full of possibilities, does Dorchen discouraged?
There are several Jeff Dorchens, and the one trait they all have in common is unpredictability. He can be by turns bitter and whimsical, caustic and charming, crabby and seductive. He can curse a blue streak, but sometimes he’ll listen with an almost spiritual intensity. He has a philosophical air, but no one can escape his sarcasm when he’s pissed off. I have tape recorded several hours’ worth of Dorchen rants–about his problems with Clinton, about the Republican Congress, about the “sellout liberal establishment,” about certain local critics. There’s Dorchen the outcast, the man who feels himself out of sync with the world, born in the wrong place and time.
Yet Dorchen came by his argumentative side naturally. According to Danny Baron, a childhood friend from Michigan, “Jeff inherited his frankness from his father.” Baron, who’s now a screenwriter in California, says the family’s frank discussions were known to get loud–and mildly violent. Once Dorchen kicked out a taillight on his parents’ station wagon while bickering with his mother.
In many ways the Dorchens were the typical liberal Jewish nuclear family–busy, creative, talkative, though not particularly religious. His father was an architect, his mother a painter. Dorchen went to shul in preparation for a bar mitzvah that never came.
Baron says Dorchen was a passionate kid. “Jeff had elaborate theories about anything and everything,” he says, recalling their marathon telephone conversations. “We were supposed to be arranging the car pool for Hebrew school, but instead we would talk talk talk about this or that book Jeff was reading.”
Baron says he and Dorchen were “smart-asses.” When they were in high school Baron decided to pull a prank on future Oobleck member Danny Thompson, who was a year older and considered the school’s best actor. “One of those guys who always got the great leads in every play,” Baron says.
So Baron introduced Dorchen as his fresh-off-the-plane cousin from the Soviet Union. Dorchen obligingly took Thompson’s hand, bowed, and spoke some Russian-sounding gibberish. Baron translated it to English. Thompson took the bait–he was excited to meet someone from another country and quizzed Dorchen about life back in the USSR.
Dorchen and Baron kept this charade going for a week before finally telling Thompson the truth. Thompson took the joke well, and the three became fast friends, spending hours in Dorchen’s basement watching movies on cable. The three also loved to do weird things in public. “When we first discovered theatrical hair,” Baron says, “we would put it on strange parts of our body–our palms or our forehead–and then just go to the store.”
When it came time for college in the early 1980s, Thompson and Baron went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where they were followed a year later by Dorchen, who transferred there from Wayne State. All three were students in the university’s residential college, an interdisciplinary liberal arts school within the school. Dorchen says it attracted “the personalities and weirdos, really great people.”
They began to meet the group of actors and writers who would later form the core of Oobleck: David Isaacson, Barbara Thorne, Terri Kapsalis, Wylie Goodman, Mickle Maher. The interdisciplinary nature of the school was carried into their performances, often mixing music and theoretical debates into the plays. Ann Arbor encouraged the kind of experimentation usually associated with the 60s counterculture. “There were all these happenings,” Thompson says. “I remember once there was a band onstage playing, and two films were projected on them at once. There were big pieces of paper on the wall and floors for the audience to draw or write on. And everyone in the audience was taking mushrooms. That had an effect on us, because these were the people who were interested in our plays.”
The air was thick with anarchistic, utopian ideas. The university’s Green Bicycles program provided community-owned bikes, which riders would leave unlocked on campus for others to use. The community also had a strong interest in experimental theater, and there was even a professional avant-garde troupe–the Brecht Company, which advanced Bertolt Brecht’s idea of drama as a forum for leftist politics.
Dorchen and his friends decided to put together their own theater collective, and they hit upon the name of Streetlight Theater. “Danny Thompson and I thought we should do theater under the streetlights.” Dorchen recalls. Poor and populist by design, Streetlight specialized in staging collections of one-acts written by members of the group. Because everyone was allowed to present his play, these productions became unwieldy, as evidenced by the title of a particularly demanding five-hour evening: “One Play After Another Until We Are Done.” Eventually, the company started producing full-length works, starting with Maher’s Ubu-like satire, King Cow and His Helpers, followed soon after by Dorchen’s sci-fi satire, Earth Be Damned.
Though these plays were attributed to specific authors, the longer works were created in concert with friends and advisers, whom the Ooblecks would later dub their “outside eyes.” The outside eyes were invited to watch a piece during rehearsals and put in their own two cents. The term outside eyes has since been adopted by other theaters on Chicago’s fringe scene. Unlike these theaters, however, Streetlight and Oobleck would apply their anarchistic ideas to staging entire plays without the benefit of a director. Oobleck, in particular, would loudly proclaim its goal of creating nonhierarchical, totally collaborative work.
“A lot of us at the time were working in political groups in which everything was based on consensus,” says David Isaacson. “So we were working against military research on campus or in Latin American solidarity groups, and in all these groups everything was done by consensus. Then we’d go to do our theater work, and everything was being decided by one person. We had an example in our lives, another way to work. We did King Cow and His Helpers, and at the initial reading Mickle handed out a manifesto against using a director.”
Streetlight attracted a small but devoted following that loved the group’s often angry, ribald shows. “Sure, we were loud and obnoxious,” Dorchen says. “And we put a lot of people off. But so what? They could go and form their own theater company. It’s not like we had a monopoly on theater.”
But with success came a nagging sense that they were only big fish in a small pond. According to Maher, “People started saying, “Oh, you’re only successful in Ann Arbor because all your friends are here. You are just doing theater for your friends.”‘ So in November 1987, Streetlight moved to Chicago to prove them wrong. Dorchen wasn’t part of the initial migration–he stayed to finish his BA.
Upon arriving in Chicago, the newcomers concluded that they should have a new name. “Streetlight Theater,” Isaacson explains, “just wouldn’t do in the theater capital of the midwest.” No one knows for sure who came up with their next name, Theater Canard, but it seems no one wants to take credit for it. The name’s associated with six months of bickering and stagnation that produced only one play, a kid’s show called The Christmas Elf, which was performed in a few schools.
The company worked on one longer piece by Isaacson based loosely on Death Takes a Holiday. But the production soon degenerated into a textbook case of how things can go wrong when you’re depending on outside eyes to fix a work in progress. The play, which Isaacson can now barely talk about, wasn’t going well in rehearsals, due in part to an actress who rebelled against the Oobleck process. Everyone had ideas about how Isaacson could “improve” his play. He was soon overwhelmed, and there was no director to guide or protect him. Ultimately the production disintegrated after the troublesome actress dropped out.
When Dorchen joined his cohorts in the spring of 1988, he found a company lacking direction, focus, and a regular performance space. The group had been looking for a suitable storefront, but nothing they saw was right. Then, soon after Dorchen’s arrival, Wylie Goodman and Mickle Maher met Harry Hoke, an eccentric businessman who had recently opened a coffee shop in an old factory at the corner of Cortland and Elston. Hoke had run some used bookstores but now wanted to operate a combination cafe and artists’ salon of sorts. He called it Cabaret Voltaire after the dadaist hangout in World War I-era Zurich.
The place looked like the coffeehouse in Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood. It had a wonderful retro beatnik feel with its exposed bricks, worn mismatched furniture, and stacks of magazines and books that invited you to sit and read and sip away the afternoon. There was also a back room filled with boxes and trash. Hoke convinced Maher and Goodman it would make a great small theater space–once it was cleaned out and rehabbed a little. After the company accepted the challenge, everyone decided that the name Theater Canard had to go. Theater Canard at Cabaret Voltaire sounded too pretentious.
“Everyone made up several names and put them in a hat,” Dorchen says. “Mine were combination names like Bug Fight Theater, Dogwater Theater, Feather Down Your Throat Theater. Everyone picked three names they could tolerate. And we did this gradual voting and weeding out.” One of the names that didn’t get very far in this process was a darkly sarcastic moniker that Dorchen had come up with: Theater for the Age of Gold. “Finally it was down to Oobleck, Quantum Leap Club, and We Am Theater.” Dorchen laughs. “Thank God Oobleck won.” The new name came from the Dr. Seuss book Bartholomew and the Oobleck.
They set to work building a theater. “We cleaned it up. We painted it. We stole drywall from Handy Andy at night and put it up.”
From their first production, an assortment of one-acts collected under the title “Godzilla Versus Lent,” Oobleck was a hit. Dorchen’s contribution to the show was a profane, Jarry-esque play called Imp of the Perverse, in which Dorchen, pregnant, is cut open by a wacky doctor and gives birth to a nasty, brutish child who enters the world shouting “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Aided by a positive review in the Reader, and by the fact that tickets were only $3 or “pay what you can,” Oobleck started playing to sold-out houses.
By their next show, the full-length Three Who Dared: A Play on the Movies, the Ooblecks had settled into a distinctive style of irreverent intellectual comedy: the show is hung on a hook drawn from real life (in this case, the trial of Rossano Brazzi, the Italian movie star who was accused of selling arms to Middle Eastern terrorists); the play is often populated with real characters, though their role in the story is usually fictional (here, Mitzi Gaynor testifies that Brazzi didn’t sing his own songs in the movie version of South Pacific–“I had to wonder, is this man trustworthy?”); a wide range of topics are addressed (Three Who Dared discusses musical comedy and old movies as well as existentialist philosophy and deconstructionist literary criticism); multiple plots are introduced (eminent left-wing critic and professor Paul de Man, who had recently been exposed as a Nazi collaborator, takes the stage to analyze the text of South Pacific and ends up beating an Israeli soldier); and over the course of the show the audience discovers the various elements are linked by a universal theme (here, it’s the rationalization of violence and repression from one generation to the next). True to their anarchist philosophy, the Ooblecks mounted the play without a director, though Isaacson was credited as the script’s principal author. The Reader’s Albert Williams proclaimed, “Chicago theater has a bright and probing new comic spirit at work; long may they prosper.”
In December 1988, Dorchen’s full-length The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard used the Oobleck formula to lampoon the national obsession with celebrity. Peopled with takeoffs on real-life characters like journalist Tom Wolfe, rock musician Patti Smith, and playwright-turned-movie-star Sam Shepard, the play skewers popular notions of what’s hip. One brief exchange alone satirizes 50 years’ worth of American culture, from Bob Dylan to John Steinbeck to Tennessee Williams.
In his production notes, which were published with the play in 1991, Dorchen outlined the eccentricities of both the play and the company’s working method: “Theater Oobleck works without a director, and this play was written for Oobleck with an eye toward a directorless rehearsal process. I believe it lends itself well toward a process in which actors are the primary source of character and stage business as the interpretation of the script is developed. The characters are either drawn from comic strips, TV, or fame, which is another kind of comic strip. Fame throws concepts of human nature up to the public in two dimensions, as TV and comics do. Perhaps some of the characters require more esoteric research into pop culture, but it is certainly not beyond any actor to accomplish this. Actors who are by nature performers and storytellers have within them an evolved, broadened, sloppy commedia dell’arte sense that should allow them to begin, as this play began, with stereotypes and slanderous generalizations about their characters, and develop them, through love and a Brechtian sense of their position in the mechanism of the play, into either humans warped by their stereotypic genes or stereotypes on which human parts have, as if by B-movie radioactive contamination, grown or festered. This can be done without the aid of a director or dramaturg, who should in the case of this play if not countless other cases be treated as atrophied tentacles if not parasitic encumbrances on what would otherwise be a healthy organism.”
Dorchen’s proud, confrontational tone played to the group’s self-image as theater outlaws and mavericks. “When we first came to Chicago our attitude was, we are going to be the ones,” says Isaacson. “We are going to be the ones who never incorporated. We’ll be traveling across the country in a big bus and people will say, “How have you done that?’ And we’ll say, “We never incorporated. We didn’t use a director. We didn’t do any of the things you are supposed to do.”‘
In Chicago magazine, Anthony Adler described The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard as “a wonderfully vicious little voodoo hex of a play in which Shepard’s moral retreat from rock ‘n’ roll visionary of the early 60s to blandly sensitive studmuffin of the 80s is explained with reference to hillbilly curses, monstrous twins, Armageddon, and the arrival of the American Jesus who “can kick the ass of any other Jesus in the world.”‘
Unfortunately, just as Oobleck was gaining attention, the theater’s relationship with its landlord started to sour. Despite repeated promises, Hoke insisted on playing loud music, which could be clearly heard through the plasterboard wall separating the coffee bar from Oobleck’s performance space. Every time the company complained, Hoke would say he had forgotten they were performing.
Dorchen felt Hoke resented their success. For months there was a not-so-silent war between Dorchen and Hoke, whom Dorchen had labeled a “Stalinist.” It came to a head one night during a performance of The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard. Dorchen was onstage, in character, playing Pappy Dogpatch, Shepard’s trashy father. No matter how hard he tried, Dorchen says, he could no longer ignore the ringing pinball machine and loud music.
“Jeff was in the middle of a scene,” Thompson says, “and he suddenly turned to the other people onstage and said, “Just a minute, I’ll be right back. It’s that son-of-a-bitch neighbor.’ He then walks offstage, opens the door, and shouts, still in his hillbilly character, “Hey there Harry, you turn down that music or I’m going to come out there and kill you right in the middle of this goddamn play.’ He then just slams the door, walks back onto the stage, and without missing a beat turns back to the character, “Now you were saying.”‘
The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard was Oobleck’s last production at the Cabaret Voltaire.
In 1989 the company moved a few miles northeast to a space formerly occupied by Igloo theater, on Broadway near Irving Park. In their new theater, Oobleck continued to attract crowds. They were regularly reviewed now in the daily newspapers and were even gaining notice in national theater publications. Dorchen’s plays were singled out for praise.
Yet at the height of Oobleck’s acclaim, Dorchen went through what he would later describe as a “breakdown and collapse.” He became obsessed with the idea that he should walk away from theater and throw himself into a rigorous study of the Talmud. He was determined to bypass yeshivas in the U.S. He would go to directly to study with the Sephardic Jews of Morocco, believing they must have a deep and authentic connection to the soul of Judaism.
“That’s where you can find the cabala,” he says, referring to the tradition of Jewish mystical teachings. He even thought he might get bar mitzvahed while he was there.
Dorchen ended up in Marrakech looking for a synagogue in the old part of the city. He wandered lost for days because the streets weren’t marked. “And I didn’t just want to go around asking “Where are the Jews?”‘ he says.
Eventually Dorchen found a synagogue and to his surprise the Jews he met spoke Arabic and were Lubavitchers, members of a Hasidic movement centered in Brooklyn. “Still, they were Sephardic and the service was Sephardic,” he says, “so I was happy.”
Dorchen told the rabbi that he wanted to study there and was assigned a six-year-old child to teach him the Hebrew alphabet. The rabbi lent Dorchen a green corduroy suit because his clothes–a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes–were not considered proper attire. They also gave him some giant wing tips, and Dorchen topped off the outfit with a floppy straw hat. “I looked like a complete idiot,” he says. People on the street would point at him and laugh. “Not because I looked like a Jew, but because I looked like a farmer.”
After a while Dorchen began to dread going to the synagogue to study, and then he would feel guilty for his dread. To confuse matters, all he could talk about was his theater back in Chicago–how well they were doing, how exciting it was to be making plays and getting reviewed. “I really thought I was going to walk off the edge of the world and not come back,” he recalls, but instead his 6,000-mile trip to North Africa brought him closer to Chicago.
One day, while visiting Casablanca, Dorchen met Ira Glick, an Orthodox Jew from Philadelphia. Glick was a serious student of Judaism who had come to Morocco to relax. He spent much of his time chasing Moroccan women. “He looked a little like R. Crumb,” Dorchen says, “only his teeth were better.”
Glick was amused by Dorchen’s predicament: “You’re going to lock yourself in a yeshiva with a lot of Hasidic teenagers? You’re crazy! If you want to study, go back to Chicago, find a rabbi you like, and study with him once a week.”
Dorchen immediately felt that a great weight had been lifted. “Ira freed me.”
Most critically acclaimed theater companies eventually feel like the press has turned on them. For Oobleck this happened while Dorchen was in Morocco. The show Somalia, Etc. was panned by the critics, and their loose, anarchistic plays began to be dismissed as the work of self-indulgent postgraduates. Soon after their next show, the group would move out of their theater on Broadway and would be without their own space for nearly a year.
Once again, Dorchen arrived in Chicago to find a demoralized company. He brought home a play he had started writing while overseas, Ugly’s First World, which would become his greatest success with Theater Oobleck. When the work was published in 1990, he thanked the troupe, “without whom this play would have been an unfinished novel written by a bitter, lonely person.”
The play, full of songs and music by Dorchen, nevertheless fit squarely in the Oobleck tradition. It was a sprawling account of what happened after the overthrow of God from heaven and the arrival on earth of three zombies from hell. The zombies speak in the goofy, wise-guy manner of the Bowery Boys. Into this story were thrown the characters of T.S. Eliot and Aleister Crowley, the legend of Greystoke, and a travelogue detailing the exploits of hashish smugglers in Morocco.
The play received positive reviews and would later be remounted in the Goodman Studio during a national convention of theater educators. Anthony Adler wrote that “there’s so much I love about this awful, spazzy show, with its Grand Guignol tastes, its X-ray cultural vision, and its perfect heart. . . . The Ooblecks produce work that’s at once intellectually precise and wildly imaginative, deeply earnest and loads o’ fun.”
The group decided to find a new space. They leased a former fraternal lodge above a funeral parlor at the corner of Ashland and Foster. But the two years Oobleck occupied this space were years of increasing dissatisfaction for Dorchen. He began to feel the group’s lack of a director resulted in messy shows. He wanted more control over his material.
“I wanted my thing to be my thing,” Dorchen says now. “I wanted people to know I wrote it.”
Dorchen’s resolve to leave Oobleck was strengthened after his 1991 play, Mysticeti and the Mandelbrot Set, was savaged by the critics. In true Oobleck style, it was a diffuse and difficult work packed with references to such disparate subjects as whaling and fractal geometry. It was ostensibly about time travel, but at heart the play–like the mathematical concept known as the Mandelbrot set–was about discovering repeated patterns within complex situations. The narrative structure was nonlinear, and each ingredient was meant to mirror the story’s overarching pattern. The daily critics were baffled. Both the Tribune’s Richard Christiansen and the Sun-Times’s Hedy Weiss hated the show and even took shots at the audience. Christiansen wrote that “Oobleck’s predecessors are the coffeehouse beat poets of the 50s who aimed both their drivel and their talent at an unwashed few.” Weiss admitted that she consulted a dictionary as soon as she left the theater, though, she wrote, “Mandelbrot, I already knew, is the Yiddish word for almond bread.”
“The Mysticeti experience changed everything for me,” Dorchen says. “I like the show and the criticism from Richard Christiansen and Hedy Weiss was based more on resentment against intellectuals, leftists, and subversives, and things they don’t understand and don’t want to understand, and general ignorance of literature and modern art strategies. Not even postmodern art strategies, but modern art that’s been around a century or more.”
Meanwhile, the other members of Oobleck, now in their late 20s and early 30s, were beginning to burn out. Everyone had outside jobs; no one was living off theater work. It was increasingly difficult to find time to write new plays, and the group’s collective approach began to grate on some members.
“One of the things I learned in Oobleck was how to deal with a lot of people yelling,” says Barbara Thorne. “Jeff has always been on the hyper side. And he was always looking at every detail of everything that was going on. He had definite ideas and he would voice them. But I never got the feeling that it was personal.
“Streetlight always had the attitude that you have to empower everyone. Sometimes people would get tired of this. There would be a quiet person in the group and we’d be like, you have to give them a chance to speak. And Jeff and Mickle would be going at it, and they’d be yelling, and they’d say, “I’m tired of having to stop and pay attention to everybody.’ It was very difficult sometimes.”
“We had been working together, some of us, for 12 years, some of us for only two years,” Isaacson explains. “But when you do six shows a year–and involved in that is consensus making and group decision making–even two years seems like more than two years.
“There were tensions in working with a group of our size. We had 15 very active members, all of whom wanted to be cast in good parts. And Mickle and Jeff, as our main playwrights, faced the pressure all the time of who is going to be insulted if they didn’t cast them in a show.”
“I know Jeff felt like he had to write for certain people,” says Terri Kapsalis, “and if he didn’t have to write for certain people they’d be unhappy. It was hard to keep up with the responsibility of being in an artistic collective.”
The group’s notoriety had also started to lose its appeal. Thorne describes being disturbed to find Oobleck cited in personal ads. “We had become a key word that would cue people in to what type of person you were,” she says. Isaacson adds that “it was becoming a burden just to be thought of as from Oobleck. We thought we had been heralded by the critics, and at a certain point there comes a critical backlash and new things come along. We felt Theater Oobleck became a target. There was a feeling that being Theater Oobleck carried a certain amount of baggage with it.”
In 1991, the group decided to give up their space and take some time off following the production of Maher’s absurdist sci-fi comedy Gone. At the same time Dorchen and Maher announced they were leaving Oobleck to form their own company called Theater for the Age of Gold. This fed the rumor that Theater Oobleck wasn’t just taking time off but breaking up for good.
At the closing night party in their theater on Ashland, an increasingly drunk Dorchen danced around the room, laughing and cracking jokes. He’d grab my tape recorder and babble gibberish into the microphone. He’d laugh maniacally and add that, no, for the thousandth time, Oobleck is not going under. Then he’d lower his voice and say, “Who knows? I might even appear in another Oobleck show.”
Nearly four years later, Dorchen stood in the corridor of that same theater on Ashland, but now it belonged to a new group, the Neo-Futurists, whose hit show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind had been attracting crowds every weekend.
Tonight the group was performing out of town, and the space belonged to Dorchen, who was about to take the stage for his solo show The Life and Times of Jewboy Cain. He sauntered over to a short line of people at the box office. “Hello,” he said to each in a quiet voice, then added in a stage whisper, “Thank God somebody’s here.”
As it turned out, Oobleck did continue producing, albeit at a much slower pace. And Dorchen did act in another Oobleck show, playing Freud in Isaacson’s The Making of Freud. But for all practical purposes, Dorchen alone was now the Theater for the Age of Gold. He has been ever since his erstwhile partner Maher gave up theater and moved to Vermont to study creative writing at Bennington College.
When the pair broke away from Oobleck, the idea was that Maher and Dorchen would alternate writing scripts, but things hadn’t worked out as planned. For three years Maher had been a dry well. “I haven’t written a thing,” he said ruefully. “I shouldn’t say that. I started the plays, but I never finish them.” The burden fell on Dorchen, first to write the shows, and then, when Maher dropped out, to act in them as well.
But Theater for the Age of Gold wasn’t a total bust for Dorchen. Free from the constraints of having to write for an ensemble, he produced a remarkable series of small one- and two-character plays. The plots increasingly became tighter, his satire more biting, his stories more satisfying, his comic characters deeper and more complex.
The Theater for the Age of Gold’s first production, 1992’s Birth of a Frenchman, was a one-man show about a French child inexplicably born to American parents. The following year brought Dorchen’s The Croaking Fascist and the Armband Variations, a witty two-man satire that featured Adolf Hitler as a cross-dressing manservant and a wealthy, snobbish Viennese Jew who suddenly finds himself in concentration-camp pajamas. By the time Dorchen got around to writing his third show, Maher was gone.
It’s a good thing his last play, The Life and Times of Jewboy Cain, was a relatively simple show. The set’s uncomplicated–a card table, a couple of chairs, a simple platform stage, and a large purple cardboard mountain. Compared to the crazy chaos of Dorchen’s Oobleck shows, Jewboy Cain is fairly straightforward.
The play’s hero–a talented, opinionated, down-and-out Jewish folksinger–recalls two important moments in his life: the day he discovered his Cajun grandfather was Jewish and the evening his career ended. The last part transpired after he’d alienated an adoring audience by daring to cross the line from entertainment into social commentary.
The Life and Times of Jewboy Cain was an artistic success, garnering positive reviews, but it was plagued by the sort of production and publicity problems common to one-man operations. Though uncomplicated, the set was still too much for Dorchen to handle alone. He also tried to manage the show’s publicity but failed miserably. “I really need someone to help me with the press,” he admits. “I used to be better at this.” This shortcoming nearly proved fatal after Dorchen decided to move the show from the Lunar Cabaret, where it attracted healthy audiences, to the Neo-Futurarium, where every night his heart sank when he looked out at the handful of people who came to see what was easily his most accessible show.
The play ends on a note of transcendent beauty as the hero finds spiritual satisfaction playing his music alone in the mountains and reciting lines from Taoist poetry: “When the great simplicity broke apart different names appeared. Aren’t there enough names now? Isn’t it time to stop? To know when to stop is to avoid danger. . . . The way that can be spoken is not the true way.”
The year since Dorchen closed The Life and Times of Jewboy Cain has been filled with setbacks and reversals. Every time you meet him, something else in his life has become unhinged.
His job teaching English as a second language at Daley College became less secure after the state legislature passed a law that weakened tenure rights and compromised the teacher’s union. “Basically, they can pay us whatever they want and fire us next year when they find someone willing to do what we do for less.”
He was hired by Redmoon Theater to play Frankenstein in an adaptation of Shelley’s novel by Bryn Magnus, but Dorchen was replaced by a puppet three months into rehearsals. “That really pissed me off. The text was never given a chance to work. At the beginning of the process I said, “I hope this doesn’t become this thing where all the text disappears and I end up carrying around a piece of cardboard. That’s not what I am here to do.’ And that’s exactly what happened. Except that I decided not to carry around a piece of cardboard.”
Most devastating of all, Dorchen and his longtime girlfriend separated. “My whole life situation changed. And at the same time there was that stupid fiasco with the Redmoon thing falling through. Very inappropriately timed, don’t you think?”
Taking a cue from Mickle Maher, Dorchen applied to graduate writing programs. “My little plan was to get into a school and get a free ride because I’m so brilliant. And then write all the time. Write some fiction. Write some plays. So I applied to all these fiction programs. Iowa. Stanford. Brown. Oregon.” He didn’t get into a single school. “I don’t have much of a fiction reputation.”
So Dorchen has settled on a different plan: he’s leaving Chicago. “I’m going to take a trip. Paula Killen is house-sitting in Laguna Beach, California, and she said I could stay there. I have friends in Oregon, in San Francisco, Seattle. I will stay with them, get all my visiting out of the way, and get a bunch of writing done because I won’t be working.”
When I ask what he’ll live on, Dorchen says he has savings–and the Theater for the Age of Gold is still receiving grant money from the MacArthur Foundation. “The theater management,” he says, “has determined it would be best to send Jeff Dorchen on a four-month trip to the west coast.”
Is Dorchen having a midlife crisis?
“I have a midlife crisis every two years,” he jokes. But he’s not smiling.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Nathan Mandell.