Lost, lost, I don’t wanna be lost. –Maestro Subgum and the Whole, from the song “Rainy Day”
I’m sitting in a Bucktown coffeehouse with Beau O’Reilly. It’s a late spring afternoon in 1993, and very possibly lovely outside, but we’re not doing lovely today. Beau’s dark, sad gentleness is brooding over the table today; there’s a sunset glow to my iced tea.
A founder of the band called Maestro Subgum and the Whole, and also of Maestro’s theatrical outgrowth, the Curious Theatre Branch, Beau is a catalytic personality in Chicago’s fringe performance community: father figure to a close-woven familial scene that’s been producing rude, strange, often brilliant original work for the last six or seven years. He’s asked me here to discuss the possibility that this scene is in the process of unraveling–“there being a feeling,” he says, “that we’re all in trouble.”
We spend the next three hours flailing around for a handle on what exactly the trouble is and who precisely is in it. Like any good father, Beau’s worried–spooked by the loss of Theatre of the Reconstruction, a fringe company that operated out of a space on North near Damen just a block from the Curious storefront; disquieted by the general consensus that business this season stinks even more than usual. He runs through the familiar stresses: “The fringe scene has to support itself,” he says. “It can’t really count on the press supporting it. It can’t really count on the outside funding sources supporting it. It can’t really count on the audience that goes to the Goodman and Steppenwolf and wherever they go. They may take a risk and venture out to see something [on the fringe] once a year, but they’re certainly not going to venture out to see something every three weeks.”
Beau talks about the difficulties involved in covering a $2,000 overhead with $1,800 in receipts. He talks about the strains involved in working experimentally, reminding us both that “there are no models: what’s vital about the fringe isn’t just new work, it’s new forms.” He takes a moment to consider the prospect of a theater world without new forms.
Everything he says is true and unfortunate, but hardly surprising. We both know that work of the sort Beau does–shows about ranting alcoholics on Joycean “spews,” shows where poetic wrestlers declaim from a set of monkey bars–won’t be pulling in the big bucks anytime soon. Or the small ones either, most likely. It’s a marginal life; that’s why it’s called the fringe. I try to imagine the headline that would come of the story he’s telling me–something like,
ARTISTS WORK HARD,
“We Don’t Like It,” O’Reilly Claims.
Hardly compelling news.
Beau seems to understand that what he’s describing isn’t a crisis, really, but the normal state of things as it pertains to people like him; that poverty, obscurity, uncertainty, stress, and attrition are the trouble artists are in as a matter of course in big cities like Chicago–especially if their art is exploratory rather than commercial. He acknowledges that fact. “I am one of the people who always says, ‘[Art]’s not your job, it’s not your job. Get a job. It will never be your job. Get a job that you can stand, and then you can do good work,”‘ he tells me, in the musical cadence that comes naturally to his voice and mind. The son of a gifted, irresponsible local actor, Beau’s been poor and artistic all his life.
The difference is that he can’t stand it anymore. Can’t stand to live it, can’t stand to see it happen to his beloved family of collaborators. I don’t imagine there’s anything coincidental about the fact that we’re meeting here just two weeks after Beau’s 40th birthday. You hit 40 and you want to have the sense that something you’ve done stayed put. As of this spring day in 1993, Beau O’Reilly is the author of a pile of cunning, subversive performance works that will never be done a second time; the writer of many gorgeous songs that most people will never hear; the patriarch of a “family of affinity” that’s already in crisis and that will endure a serious hemorrhage by summer’s end. Most significantly for the rest of us, he’s a mature artist of real daring and accomplishment, looking for a place for himself in an environment where everybody’s always 20 years old–a scene, as he says, that’s unable “to sustain its major voices.”
Of course, he doesn’t frame the issue in such egocentric terms. Ever the family man, he discusses it in terms of his two most valued collaborators: Maestro/Curious diva Jenny Magnus and her brother, Bryn. “Get a job that you can stand, and then you can do good work,” Beau says. “But the other side of it is that I see it wearing people down and I have to pay attention. I want to work with Jenny and Bryn. That’s who I want to work with. . . . [But] I don’t want to work with Jenny and Bryn at the expense of their creative selves or their personal lives. I don’t want them so dragged down . . . that the spark goes out.” Lost, lost, I don’t wanna be lost.
What neither of us knows yet is that help is on the way–a freakish, providential help of the sort that’s only supposed to befall babies and fools. A year and a half from this spring day, in the autumn of 1994, Beau and family will be busy opening the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe in a building they plan to own collectively. Maestro Subgum will have survived many desperate moments. And though the Curious Theatre Branch will have lost its home on North Avenue, it and four of its cousin fringe companies–Jellyeye, Redmoon Theater, Theater Oobleck, and Theater for the Age of Gold–will be on the verge of scoring some significant long-term grant money from no less an institution than the MacArthur Foundation.
These will be bittersweet developments for Beau, and not just because most developments seem to be bittersweet for Beau. As Jenny Magnus will later point out, he’s getting everything he’s always wanted on conditions that negate much of their appeal. Which is to say, bluntly, that he can keep his family as long as he doesn’t try to be the daddy or to cast Jenny in the wife role she no longer wants. It’s an Orpheus and Eurydice situation: They can both return to the land of the living, all right, but only if he can overcome the urge to look back. Each has to make the trip together alone.
Human relationships are vast as deserts, they demand all daring. –Australian Nobelist Patrick White, quoted on a piece of paper stuck to a pipe in Jenny Magnus’s apartment
The bond between Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus is the sort of thing karmic theories are built on–a liaison rooted deep in their separate psyches, full of uncanny similarities and equally uncanny contrasts, and seemingly designed by God to help them fulfill their respective dharma tasks for this lifetime. Even if it kills them. Jenny and Beau are interwoven and entangled, partnered and yoked. And like any true soul mates, they define each other’s hell. The cranky, loving dialectic that goes on between them is a central fact not only of their lives and the lives of Maestro and Curious but of the life of the community around them.
Beau was born the fifth of what would turn out to be 14 O’Reilly children and lived initially in an apartment on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. His mother, Winifred Giebel, had been a professional singer in her teens and early 20s. She was a music student going to night school at Loyola University when she met James O’Reilly there just after World War II. The couple was married in 1947.
As the O’Reilly family expanded toward Guinness book proportions, rental space became harder to find in the city; so they headed out to Crystal Lake, where they bought a two-bedroom converted vacation cottage–and became, as Beau remembers it, “the biggest family in this town, and probably the poorest. . . . We were always bohemians and weird.” Winifred (who prefers the phrase “artists and therefore out of the norm” to “bohemians and weird”) stayed at the cottage in Crystal Lake for the next 20 years. But James was much more difficult to pin down: a hard drinker with some profoundly bad habits who worked day jobs in the city and acted at night. By the mid-60s James and Winifred were separated.
“[James] would appear on weekends,” Beau recalls. “There’d be no food and no word from him for some days, sometimes weeks, and then he would come in the middle of the night with big bags of Dinty Moore stew. He’d wake us all up and cook these meals. Or he’d bring home costumes and we’d be suddenly having an Egyptian gathering.”
Between paternal vaudevilles, Beau read books. He especially liked the Oz series–which seems appropriate now given the fact that Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion constitute one of the all-time classic families of affinity.
Beau got a chance to start an FOA of his own in high school, when he threw himself into antiwar activities and formed “a circle of friends that pretty much stayed my circle for the next ten years or so.” It was with this group that he established certain motifs that seem to have become a staple of his life: His first coffeehouse. His first theater company, which performed at the coffeehouse. And his first Jenny.
This Jenny, Jenny Tarpley, was a member of Beau’s circle. She and Beau became pregnant by accident while still in their teens; when the fetus miscarried in its eighth month, they decided to try again, on purpose. The baby that took turned out to be Colm, now 20.
The circle of friends became a kind of tribe and migrated together, first to California and then to De Kalb, Illinois, where they lucked into possession of a veggie restaurant/folk music club called Juicy John Pink’s, lived collectively, and put on avant-garde adaptations of Kafka stories. Beau and Jenny broke up but remained members of the tribe. “All that 60s hippie shit, even though it was ten years late, was going on,” Beau says. As for Colm, “the only thing I really remember vividly [about Juicy John’s] is running down this big long bar . . . and just running right off the edge.”
The tribe developed a significant sideline doing agitprop street theater at New Left demonstrations, calling itself the Colmpany (in honor of little Colm) of the Ashish Tree, or simply “the Colmpany.” Their adventures in the movement led by complicated means to the demise of Juicy John’s and the scattering of the tribe. Jenny and Colm went to Madison, Wisconsin, to join the food co-op movement there. Beau, meanwhile, had taken up with a woman named Kit Keasey; when she became pregnant they went to rural Wisconsin, where they lived on a farm and tended a trout pond. In 1978 they had a baby girl they called Rhiannon.
Eventually Beau, Kit, and Rhiannon made it down to Madison too. And it was there that the first version of Maestro Subgum came to be. A classically trained pianist (and therefore the “maestro” of the name), Kit started playing folk music with Beau’s sister Cecilie; they wouldn’t let Beau sing, so he created a character called Lefty Fizzle to expound between songs.
If you’ve never seen Lefty Fizzle you’ve missed something extraordinary. I first laid eyes on him December 12, 1986, at a Maestro Subgum show in a Wicker Park bar called DaVinci’s. He entered, as I remember, from a swing above our heads and didn’t quit until he’d stripped down to his defiantly untoned, untanned flesh. At the time he had long hair that he divided into three sections, braiding each section with fabric–and probably wire–so that he appeared to have two horns on top of his head and another at the back. Now Beau O’Reilly is not what you’d call a conventionally handsome man. In fact, if it weren’t for the liquid tenderness of his blue gray eyes, he’d come near to being scary: a Buddha- bellied, thick-featured, stubble-faced creature out of Tolkien, whose steel brush eyebrows seem always on the verge of meeting and marching down toward the goatee that expands and contracts from week to week across his chin. It’s this coarseness, this tumid, teeming, unbridled quality–so unlike the melancholy solicitude of his offstage manner–that comes through in the Lefty persona. With his wide-eyed Fizzle leer and his hair horns, he struck me from the start as a kind of Pan.
A kind of hipster Brechtian Pan, really. Got up in an oversized ringmaster’s coat, Lefty would saunter around, swinging his walking stick, speaking a Clockwork German (“Wilkommen, wilkommen, brooders and blisters”), and spouting his own brand of beat materialism: a cool of hard knocks.
The original Lefty was “more frantic and more specifically political” than in subsequent incarnations, Beau says–a reflection of his antinuke activism in Madison. “I would read the paper before a show and then I would spew.” Since then the spew itself has become the focus. Beau compares his technique to that of Henry Miller: “[Miller]’s got a flow thing. It’s like, paint the picture. You know, you’re drinking coffee and there’s a pen here and there’s a table there and there’s a beautiful woman and she walks by and your cock engorges–and that kind of imagery, that kind of following the chain of the brain was something that I was always interested in. And I would do it in poetry–what I call poetry–and I would do it as a songwriter and I could do it with Lefty. Lefty’s very much like a non sequitur leaper. . . . He just goes off . . .
“By letting yourself go you go someplace that you have no idea that you’re going to go to and you don’t expect to go there and it’s a language thing that gets you there.”
But even as he was getting his artistic life together with Lefty, Beau’s personal life was coming utterly apart. “Got weird,” he says now. “Got not good.”
The way Beau tells it, Kit developed various physical ailments and began religion hopping, while Beau was growing ever more stridently Marxist. Kit’s solution, says Beau, was to disappear: “She would take off and I would go find her, bring her back,” he remembers. “And this went on for about a year.”
Kit’s own recollection is that she became anorexic in reaction to what she calls the “desolate experience” of trying to live life as Beau lived it: hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, show-to-show, amid the crowds that habitually gathered around him. She left, she says, “to be healed.”
One of Kit’s excursions took her and Rhiannon to Champaign, Illinois. Beau tracked her there and they reconciled for a while, but it didn’t work: Beau longed for Colm and the community back in Madison, while Kit was busy getting baptized. There were plate-throwing fights over going to church. Kit had come to see Beau as an irresponsible dreamer who was “running amok” over her life.
So in 1982 she took Rhiannon and left again. Only this time Beau couldn’t find them. And didn’t for over a decade, until Kit–now Kathy, a securely established vocal music teacher in South Bend–contacted him last year on Rhiannon’s behalf.
“It was very very hellish. For me it was awful,” Beau says of the period after Kit’s final break. He hung around Champaign for a couple of years, doing drugs and–oddly–a production of Beckett’s Endgame. “Drank a lot. Sort of wandered around. Lived with different women, loved them, don’t know, don’t remember. It was really that kind of haze.”
Just about the only thing that could rouse Beau from his haze was the occasional visit from Colm, during which he’d act like any overly indulgent divorced dad. “Whenever I would come to town he was great,” Colm recalls. “He would save up all his money for when I came to town, take me to the movies all the time and stuff.” As soon as Colm left, however, he’d collapse again.
Eventually Beau washed up in Chicago. He house-managed for his father–who was artistic director of the Body Politic Theatre at the time–and drank with him as well. He resurrected Maestro Subgum with new personnel–including his little sister Kate–and drank with them. He was living, he says now, “very close to the street.”
Then came a change. Members of a fringe company called igLoo, the Theatrical Group, saw Maestro perform and decided that Lefty would fit right in with their fun-house aesthetic. “He had this classic vaudevillian way of expressing himself onstage,” remembers Maria Tirabassi, a cofounder of igLoo. A way that seemed to resonate with commedia touches. “It was almost as if something had been preserved [from an earlier era].” The igLoo people asked him to be in a show called Journy to Destiny (sic), which would ultimately include a memorable cream-pie-throwing sequence.
Beau needed lots of prodding. “By this time I had done so much dope that I couldn’t remember things very well,” he says. “[But] they talked me into doing it. I did a couple of shows. They were successful. People saw my work, people responded. They really liked me, and I stopped drinking because I wanted to be able to do the acting better.”
Maestro fell apart again, this time because the group dynamic couldn’t tolerate a sober Beau. But Beau had been saved by theater. He assembled a new Maestro, which sister Kate also joined. That was the version I saw in 1986, just before the winter solstice. That was the group that sang, “Habit is hunger and hunger is strong / Takes back what it gives you and strings you along.”
About a year later, Beau got a letter in the mail. It was from Jenny Magnus.
Jenny was in San Francisco at the time. She’d gone west in pursuit of a lover and stayed to pursue her performance career. Neither aspect of the trip was going well, however. The would-be lover, a former girlfriend of brother Bryn’s, had turned out to be “strictly heterosexual”; the San Francisco performance community projected a “calloused” sensibility from which Jenny’s more earnest heart recoiled. It was time to move on, and Chicago seemed like a reasonable destination if only because New York promised to be the capital of callous.
Jenny had met Beau just once at that point: in Madison, not long before the San Francisco trip, when Maestro Subgum came up from Chicago to perform at the opening of Natural Hostages, one of Bryn’s plays. “I thought he was the weirdest man in the world,” she says now. “But there was something about the band that totally intrigued me.” And of course they were from Chicago. So she wrote to Beau saying that she was thinking of moving there, and did he know of any places where she might perform? Evidently he said yes, because she abandoned San Francisco, arriving in Chicago in January of 1988. She and Beau were roommates by March, lovers and artistic collaborators before the spring weather set in.
As weird as Beau may have seemed when Jenny first met him, he was hardly her first experience with that quality. In fact, his particular weirdness was probably an element of their rapport. Like Beau, Jenny’s known weird–and also painful–for as long as she can remember.
Like Beau, too, her introduction to weird and painful began with the family. Jenny was born in Ohio 34 years ago, to a couple who moved around a lot because, Jenny says, “they were just so out of it they wanted to not be anywhere where anybody knew them.” Jenny’s mother Bab was a “stunning” blond from Nevada, her father Ralph an “Ethical Culture Jew” from New York (whose first cousin, by the way, founded the Improvisation nightclub chain); they lived together in Greenwich Village for a year before getting married in 1950. Ralph was a marriage and family counselor who liked to participate in community theater, Bab an actress who performed under the stage name of Frey Collins and made it to Broadway for one night in a show called Her Unborn Child. Bab gave up the theater, however, for alcohol and prescription drugs like Ridalin. For years thereafter, until her recovery in 1972, Bab and Ralph settled into what Jenny calls the “classic alcoholic relationship: he took care of her and she wigged out.”
Ralph and Bab and their three children–Julie, Bryn, and the youngest, Jenny–landed finally in Delafield, Wisconsin, a little community in what used to be farmland and is now part of the great suburban belt that stretches between Milwaukee and Madison. As Jenny sees it, Delafield was a place for her parents to hide out. She was ten years old when they arrived.
The psychic life of the family was structured, naturally, around the 800-pound gorilla of Bab’s illness. Though Bab and Ralph could be enlightened parents in some ways–promoting, as Bryn puts it, “liberal humanistic communication where there was a lot of respect for each other”–they could also be sick and “intrusive” in their attempts to placate the disease. The kids found themselves cast in roles common to families in their situation. Julie, Bab says now, was the Scapegoat: the one blamed for things that no one dared blame on mom. Bryn was the Lost One: utterly inward, aloof, and–whenever possible–gone.
And Jenny was the so-called Hero of the Family, the superachiever. “By the age of 15 I was already doing everything at school–just never being home [and] working so hard,” she says. “I was first-chair flute in the orchestra. I was editor of the yearbook. I was in every play. I just totally drove myself to insane lengths to excel.” She also thought of herself as a “fat blob,” though her high school drama teacher, Diane Powell, remembers her as being merely “heavier than the image adolescent girls have of themselves.”
Jenny eventually lost the weight, but not the workaholic, perfectionist tendencies that have driven–and in some ways dogged–her life ever since. She never lost a certain existential relentlessness, either–a passionate, often stiff-necked rigor that made her liable to “tear the head off” any poor adolescent fool who tried to act cool around her. “Even when I was a teenager,” Bryn recalls, “she wouldn’t let me or my friends get away with anything. She was very critical, and very challenging. She would always try and shatter the facade.”
It’s this rigor that Shu Shubat, Bryn’s lover and artistic partner in the Jellyeye performance troupe, picks up on when she calls Jenny’s work “excruciated”–explaining that Jenny “always tunes in to what excruciates her and makes art from it.” It’s this rigor, also, that makes her something of a feminist Hero of the Family to the coterie of fans who have come to view her as a model of focused, disciplined, deeply honest, and uncompromising creative energy.
“I had this dream,” Bryn says, “where I was a kid and I would be hovering in the stairwell, just sort of flying in the stairwell. . . . I was protecting my sisters from something that was going to be coming up the stairs, and it took me a really long time to figure out what it was. When I figured out what it was it was just so obvious: It was my parents. But they were dead, they were empty, and it was just sort of their bodies lumbering up the stairs. And it was like this thing of–they had chosen this false life for themselves. Which I think is why Jenny so fiercely holds on to doing art and doing her life the way she is. She does not want to fall into that trap.”
After high school, Jenny went to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, with the idea of studying journalism. “I was completely–no, completely–a virgin in every sense,” she says now, laughing. “I had no social life at all, for very funny reasons: I had this morbid belief since I was probably about four or five years old that I was a hermaphrodite. I had just convinced myself of this fact in a very morbid way. It was clearly a reaction to my family, but I was very repressed. . . . It was a huge secret.”
Before long, however, she met a man, a 35-year-old geology grad student, who proved to her that she was no hermaphrodite. They stayed together for four years, during which time Jenny “pretty much gave up on school [and] majored in romance.” The age difference got the better of the relationship, however; Jenny and her geologist split, and Jenny joined Bryn in Madison, where he was driving a cab, writing stories, and working with fringe auteur Joel Gersmann at the Broom Street Theater–a legendary avant outpost with a rough, fast, often cartoonish aesthetic that has influenced Chicagoans going back to Organic Theater founder Stuart Gordon.
Jenny didn’t automatically follow Bryn into Gersmann’s orbit, though ultimately she would. She studied film at first; she got a job at a local TV station, doing what she describes as an “associate producer kind of thing.”
“I was really on my way to being Mary Richards,” she says. “But then I met these intensely amazing people. These artists. The first artists I actually knew who had dedicated their lives to it. They had this group called Two Dogs Under Paris and they were this really wild, free, improvisation kind of ritual sex-magic-[Aleister] Crowley-theater-commune-Xerox press. And I met them and they just blew my mind. And there were a few weeks when I was with them completely and working this [TV] job, and I could see that the two just couldn’t coexist: You can’t have a full-time career and have your mind blown at night.”
Jenny chose to have her mind blown. If Beau’s high school circle provided the stencil for all his subsequent pursuits, Two Dogs clearly did the same for Jenny. It was all there, everything that would come to characterize her approach to life as well as her involvement with the Maestro/Curious nexus: The sacred, renunciatory immersion in art. The association with a self-sufficient artistic community. The ideal of the “vertically integrated” artist who cultivates skills across many disciplines. The peculiar name. While refusing to go the final step and become their flat-out disciple, Jenny assumed the role of unofficial apprentice to the Two Dogs, Miekal And and Elizabeth Was. “Two Dogs” became “Twa Digs,” and she spent three years playing drums and flute in the band that formed one of their artistic enterprises.
She also spent some time trying on the family addictions, and finding that they fit entirely too well. Though Jenny had started drinking and doing recreational drugs back in Iowa–thinking it soothed the virgin in her–the practice didn’t get out of control until she hit Madison. But by then “it was physically dragging me down,” she recalls. “And psychically. And spiritually.”
Then came a change. While out west on her fool’s errand to San Francisco, Jenny visited her mother’s side of the family for the first time. “Everyone in the family’s alcoholic,” she says, “but some of them had stopped drinking and were in recovery. And the difference between the ones that had stopped and the ones that hadn’t was so clear. I looked at myself as I’ll be when I’m 50. I said, now do I want to be like that? Or do I want to be like that? And it was so clear . . .
“And I stopped dead. That was it.”
Jenny had been saved by rigor. “I think some people just don’t handle [alcohol and drugs] well,” she says. “It really hurts them. It shuts them down. It makes them freeze up and get inside themselves. It closes them. I wanted to be open.”
Hell is other people. –Jean-Paul Sartre, from No Exit
Beau and Jenny did their first work together almost as soon as Jenny arrived in Chicago. Kate O’Reilly had fallen sick and couldn’t play the role of Molly the Red in a little exercise in Brechticide called The Eight Hours. Beau asked Jenny if she’d like to fill in, though he couldn’t have had much sense of her skills. She agreed.
The cast of The Eight Hours consisted of a half-dozen men and two women; as Jenny remembers it, all but one of the men was unattached and most of them seemed willing. “I was new to town and had been alone for two or three years at that point, pretty much,” she says. “I was ripe. And I looked at this group and I gravitated to Beau. He was the one. He was clearly the one who had the most heartfelt dignity as a person. A lot of the other people, though dear people–Beau was the realest one. . . . He had the same ardent earnestness. He wasn’t apologetic for himself. He wasn’t cynical.”
Jenny was singing with Maestro that spring, billed as a “special guest star” rather than as a member, perhaps to maintain the same kind of distance she’d kept from Twa Digs. If that was the intention, however, it failed. Jenny has a clean, clear, no-nonsense alto voice, reminiscent of Ethel Merman, oddly enough–not in the sense of sharing Merman’s brassiness, but in the sense of sharing her theatrical assertiveness, her muscle, her indomitability. That voice became one of the pleasures of Maestro, along with Beau’s growly archness; Kate’s romantic hurt; and the dense, rich lyrics they write in a style that might be called psychotropic photo-realism.
But much more profound than her failure to keep her distance from Maestro was Jenny’s failure to keep her life separate from Beau’s. The only thing that prevented her from marrying him right away, she says, was a previous marriage–entered into frivolously during her Madison years–from which she’d never bothered to extricate herself in a legal sense. Ironically, she’s still technically married to her first husband, while for years she was only technically unmarried to Beau.
Sharing an apartment over the Rose Exterminators office on North Avenue, Beau and Jenny got tangled up. She helped him through a severe back injury and negotiated an uncomfortable semistepmotherhood, teenage Colm having come to live with Beau at about the same time she did. She and Colm together tried to coerce Beau into showing some concern for the details of life, like AA meetings, health insurance, and dentistry. They pooled their money, and Beau offered back his calm.
“He fed me with, ‘Let it go,'” Jenny says. “‘Yeah, [the sufferings and frustrations, the finaglings and exhaustion of poverty] are true. Are you living the life you want to live? Then let it go.’ And I fed him with, ‘Yes, but there are things one can do that make it simpler. It’s not simpler to not pay any attention. . . . Scrambling around every month to keep the disconnects from happening is harder than just opening the bill when it comes and trying to pay it.'”
This entanglement, this tension, this dialogue overflowed into their art. His easy effusion versus her rigor. On a practical level, Jenny took a stand against Lefty Fizzle’s bigger non sequiturial leaps, especially insofar as they involved spontaneously trashing musical arrangements that had taken hours to devise. More subtly, I think, she introduced a tightly wound antithesis to Beau’s chain-of-the-brain flow. You can positively hear the chaos straining up against hard surfaces in Maestro’s best recent songs, conveying a paradoxical sense of complete exhilaration inside an absolute heartbreak.
The same basic principle applies to the Curious Theatre Branch. Founded as a kind of subsidiary to Maestro Subgum for the purpose of satisfying Beau and Jenny’s desire to push their theatrical music over into musical theater, Curious became another arena for their dueling sensibilities. Where Beau’s Curious works have tended to be relatively large-cast affairs–multiple low-life characters sluicing around a cluttered set, propelled by great gusts of poetry–Jenny has made a signature of the spare solo monologue. Her strongest show, The Willies, consists visually of little more than Jenny’s face and hands emerging from darkness; its portrayals of sleepless men and women are sharp and brief. Even when Jenny used a cast of several actors–for a piece called In–her strategy was to have the actors perform solo or in couples, in separate rooms that audience members visited one at a time.
And then there’s the creative process itself. “For me the funnest thing, the absolute most joy I get out of life, is working really hard on art,” Jenny says. “Working really hard, not goofing around. The goofing around is in the work. Beau is like a raconteur. He likes to schmooze and talk and wander around. You look up and he’s gone out of the room. Where did he go? He comes back, he’s been on the phone. Or just went outside and got coffee and came back. He’s very drifty.”
The only structure Beau unreservedly embraces is the family structure. He builds them himself, out of materials at hand, perpetually reproducing the O’Reillys of Crystal Lake. Talk to the people who know him and each one will inevitably mention what Colm describes as Beau’s penchant for creating “communities to inhabit and inspire.” Jeff Dorchen, a founder of Theater Oobleck and Theater for the Age of Gold, marvels at “Beau’s ability to orchestrate people.” Bryn calls him “the classic networker.” Jenny says, “He’s like an impresario. He’s always got a lot of things going on. He can make a scene, which very few people can do. . . . He has taught me so much about generosity of spirit when it comes to making art.”
Bryn suggests that Beau’s community-building skills are part of what won Jenny to him, and kept her there for so long. “He’s a much calmer person than Jenny is,” Bryn says. “Jenny’s like fire–her articulation can be caustic, [while] Beau’s is much more process oriented. Like making sure they always speak from the ‘I’: Give the ‘I’ message, like, ‘I feel this way,’ instead of saying, ‘You get off my’–instead of accusing . . .
“And I also think he did that Svengali thing a little bit with Jenny, where he just kept saying, ‘As much as you want to do there’s room for you to do it.’ And he would always make the room for her to do whatever she wanted to do. It kept her from having to make a lot of her own decisions in a way, but I think it was really good and it made her grow as an artist.”
Of course then he adds that “she wants to be much more her own woman now.” Which is true. One way or another, Jenny’s been trying to disentangle herself from Beau for quite some time. She hasn’t shared living space with him and Colm for a few years (“For me chaos is distracting, for them it’s comforting”); she does her solo performance work partly to maintain a distinct artistic identity; she rejects the term “couple” to describe her relationship with Beau, preferring “partners” instead.
“We have a lot of problems, we really do,” Jenny says, “and living together, working together, being married–it’s an awful lot for two extremely powerful personalities and egos who have all the attendant hurt and wounds from childhood. We’re drawn together for real reasons, but I think there are also reasons why you need to keep a distance from somebody like that that you’re totally entwined with in every single way . . .
“What I’m trying to get at is the dependency part. Without going into any new-age crapiola, we’re both from alcoholic families. We’re both alcoholics. We’re both drug addicts. We both grew up in very dysfunctional, out-of-control families. I think we tend more than is good to cling out of some kind of siege mentality, and I don’t want that.”
All this has taken a tremendously long time to sink in on Beau. During the summer of 1993 Remains Theatre invited Beau and company to put on a show in the now-demolished Remains space at 1800 N. Clybourn. Time was short but there was a promise of real money, so Maestro Subgum and Jeff Dorchen slapped together a musical called How Could Such a Monster Come to Be?–a sort of comical/mythical history of a band not unlike Maestro. It was terrible, there was no getting around that; but the Maestro folks were stung at what they felt was a gleefully negative reaction from colleagues and critics. Morale within the band plummeted. Latent tensions asserted themselves. And matters only got worse when the band’s marvelous trumpet player, Bob Jacobson, left for reasons of his own. Finally, Colm quit during a rehearsal, in an explosion of pent-up feeling. Beau was devastated, his notion of communal loyalty thoroughly rattled. But even after all that–or perhaps because of it–his conversation about Jenny remained upbeat. The community might have been dissolving into tiny little crystals, but there was still hope for a reconciliation with Jenny. Lost, lost, I don’t wanna be lost.
The following spring Beau performed a solo piece called The Spew Police under Jenny’s direction, despite his great reluctance to work alone onstage. It was almost as if he wanted to please Jenny with proof that he didn’t need her. Strangely enough, it turned out to be one of the best things he’d ever done.
We have a home. –Kate O’Reilly
Kate O’Reilly’s husband, Mickey Greenberg, is the piano player for Maestro Subgum. He also appears to be the only person in the Subgum universe with any business sense at all. A utopian capitalist, in Jeff Dorchen’s phrase, he talks a lot about unlocking the energy of money.
He should know. Eight years ago Mickey bought a $45,000 two-story building on Concord just west of Damen in Bucktown. He added a story and lived there with Kate and their baby Max–as well as a changing cast of friends–running his small commercial darkroom out of the building, too. Bucktown turned into a hot neighborhood, and Mickey, by now sick of the commercial darkroom business, sold his building this year for a profit of about $90,000. How to unlock the energy in that? Mickey looked around Bucktown and Wicker Park for another building, big enough to give him rental income while he pursued other things. He couldn’t find one, and in any case Bucktown wasn’t his idea of fun anymore. As Beau says, “We did theater there because we lived there and we lived there because it was cheap.” Now the place is full of night spots and “roving packs of youth”; there’s no place to go and sit quietly at night, even when 20 places are open.
So Mickey consulted with the band, which consisted at this point of him, Kate, Jenny, Beau, and the drummer, Ned Folkerth. They agreed that Mickey would use his windfall to buy a building in another neighborhood; then they’d all work to rehab it, earning equal shares with their labor. There would be living space up above and a cafe/cabaret at street level. They’d staff the cafe themselves, with help from various friends and relatives, serving cheap, healthy, home-cooked meals in an environment where children and 40-year-old theater artists alike would be welcome. The cabaret would offer performances by members of the Chicago fringe community, as well as by the sorts of out-of-town artists the fringe community would like to see and hear. “There will be no crap at the cabaret,” says Beau. At the very least they’d all have a place to eat and sleep.
And that’s what happened. Mickey bought a three-story frame building at 2827 N. Lincoln, just north of the intersection of Lincoln, Diversey, and Racine. The group hired a carpenter to show them what they needed to know, gutted the place, and set to work putting in three apartments and a cafe with a stage and a good sound system. They painted a great big moon on the back wall and called the place the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe. It opened for business on October 28; I brought my wife and children there and we all had a good time.
Now Ned has one of the apartments and works in the cafe. Mickey, Kate, and Max occupy the second floor; Kate does a lot of the cooking while Mickey describes himself as “the person who has the idea of what’s happening three weeks from now.” Jenny’s the bookkeeper and house manager. She lives at the top of the building in a lovely little place with clean white walls–a “retreat,” where “I try to keep my mind on breathing and sitting quietly.” It’s precisely what she wants: Community and solitude, a chance to ease the hardships of being an artist in a big city like Chicago. “I live alone but I’ve got this incredible life under my feet,” she says. “It’s a family of affinity: I choose them.”
Beau cooks and does bookings for the cabaret, but he lives off-premises, sharing an apartment with Colm in Andersonville. When I asked him how he felt about that arrangement he said something completely unexpected. In that disarmingly gentle offstage voice of his he said, “I’ve done communal living before. I’m into self-protectiveness at this point. . . . I value having a place to go that’s not full of them.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.