Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009

Neo-Futurist Chicago Theatre

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I believe the name of the neighborhood was Andersonville. Opting out of a second bus, my wife and I walked through sparsely shoveled sidewalks to a tiny, little performance space across from a row of residences. Dinner was a large bucket of mussels and finger food with decent beer from the Hopleaf Bar not far from the theatre.

We were there relatively late at night. It was unreasonably cold. It must’ve been below zero. A number of use were standing in line outside waiting for the doors to the Neo-Futurists’ space to open up for its Saturday night performance of the long-running Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. A couple of us may have been so cold that we went away to the Hopleaf to warm back up again. When we came back, the line had disappeared. Sure enough, everyone had been let in. “Everyone,” in this case ended up being nearly 100 people, which was a far larger crowd than the half a dozen people who were standing out front of the theatre only fifteen minutes prior to my wife and I returning there. The line stretched off up the stairs. After a brief wait inside, the line started moving up the stairs

We were each handed coaster-sized plastic discs with the Neo-Futurists’ logo on them before piling into what appeared to be a rehearsal space complete with desks, theatre chairs and odd props. It was packed in there . . . largely with the type of crowd one might find at the Alchemist Theatre for a typical show—young aspiring theatre-types. A gentleman with something like a shaggy pageboy haircut—a guy named John Pierson—addressed the crowd from a small elevated stage. He explained how admission would work. We would form 2 single file lines. The people at the head of each line would be given a standard die. They would role the die. The number of pips landing face-up would be the number of additional dollars (above the standard $9 base admission) that individual would have to pay. My wife rolled a six. As did I. Already this thing was costing us three times what the BERZERK!! show would’ve cost back home . . .

Walking through the doorways, audience members were asked their names by two of the actors—then given a name badge on which was written whatever happened to come to mind when they saw us. Many of the names were unrelated nouns. (For some reason I was designated, “Debbie Gibson.” I suppose it could’ve been worse. I could’ve been handed a name badge labeled “Tiffany.”)


The seating arrangement in the actual theatre sat the 100-plus near-capacity audience quite comfortably. On our way in, we were each handed a “menu” of the 30 plays being performed that night. Looking at it closely, the menu for this particular show was being performed for the entire weekend. Of the 30, only seven were absolutely new. The seats were arranged in sort of a thrust stage style. A woman with child-like voice and an off-center mode of speech—a woman named Jessica Anne-- explained the show as best as possible. There would be 30 plays performed over the course of 60 minutes. The people performing are writers—not actors. They would not be playing roles. There were a series of sheets of paper with the numbers 1-15, 16-30 and the face of Barack Obama clipped to a line above the stage. When the writers signaled to the audience at the end of a piece, the audience was signaled to shout out the number of the piece they would like to see next. The writers would then ignore them and chose the next play they wanted to do. Here are some highlights:

Bilal


--with a pair of attendants at his side, a bald, goateed gentleman named Bilal performed a pork-ectomy on a piece of chicken cordon bleu. He eloquently spoke of religion as he did so. It was one of the more interesting pieces of the evening.

--There was a vaguely artistic bit entitled An Element Never Forgets, which seemed vaguely inspired by old episodes of Mr. Wizard. It was pretty. There were almost no lines spoken for the entire two minutes.

--members of the cast rushed out. Each one picked a person sitting in the front row and locked-in on them with intense smiles. They then proceeded to shout seemingly random bits of dialogue at each other while intently staring into the eyes of the audience members they had chosen. It was an interesting experiment, but it seemed kind of pointless unless one of the audience members in question actually did something. None of them did..

--Three men sat in chairs intermittently lit while the one in the center—John—talked about auto fellatio—or something.

--Jessica basted (what I assume was) a turkey (my wife thinks it was a loaf of bread) while talking about the election of .Barack Obama. I think. At this point, I should probably point out that in inordinate number of these bits were merely autobiographical spoken word monologues, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the dialogues, but really underscores the feeling that this is little more than an open mic for theatre . . .all fine and good, but way too expensive and without alcohol. I have to say that, in spite of this I actually kind of enjoyed the evening.

Caitlin


--In what was easily the most enjoyable piece of the evening, a woman named Caitlin Stanken came out on a pogo ball, playfully asking people in the front row where the play had gone. This was pleasantly surreal and actually seemed to express something about herself, the nature of theatre and the nature of reality. It was so alarmingly simple and so completely engrossing…but it really takes the right actress to carry off something like that and Caitlin was perfect for it.

--there was a two-minute “painted poop exhibit,” in which audience members were allowed to approach one of three plates being presented by three different cast members—each bearing what we were led to believe was painted dog excrement. Only a couple of people went up to look at them.   

--the short designated by the likeness of Barack Obama (which appeared on the menu between 14 and 16) was sheer catharsis. One of the actors wore an Obama mask. Two others situated on either side of him wore plastic crates with the likenesses of Bush and Cheney. The One wearing the Barack Obama mask picked up a hollow plastic children’s baseball bat. You can probably guess the rest. The hollow plastic crate being hit by a hollow plastic bat sounded a lot more powerful than it actually was. There’s probably something to be said about that . . .

Tim Reid


--I believe it was the cast member known as Tim Reid that did a few of the least interesting pieces of the evening—one of which had a title suggesting intercourse with an international chain of coffee shops. It featured the Seattle native calmly talking about the history of Starbuck’s while soaking his genitals in a Starbuck’s cup filled with water. I would only find this compelling if the cup was actually filled with Starbuck’s coffee—preferably piping hot straight from the Starbuck’s that was only a few blocks away from the performance space. THAT would’ve been daring. That sort of thing is only edgy if you actually risk injury.

--Reid also did a piece entitled 1 Minute Ass-A-Yoke, which featured him mooning the audience in front of a microphone while a song played. Not sure what the point was there, but I suppose if you have to think about it, it’s not really your kind of thing.

--In one segment, Jessica stuck a series of popsicles in Reid’s mouth . . . about six of them as I recall. It ‘s the kind of thing that has a very visceral effect on the audience, but doesn’t really have much substance beyond that. (Not that it has to.)

--Reid’s single best piece of the evening was a piece about him seeing Amelie with his mother. It was kind of touching in an odd way, I guess . . .

--John Pierson lead the audience in a distortion of the traditional ABC’s song in which a new order fro the alphabet was arrived at by drawing scrabble tiles. The letters were drawn they were re-written on the blackboard behind  the stage. Everyobody sung Now I Know My ABC’s in the newly arranged order. It had a strange kind of primal feel to it.

--A scene entitled Possible Effects of Rudimentary Feng Shui on Neo Futurism was exactly what the title sounds like. A very brief scene was performed between three actors. The furniture was rearranged. The scene was done again with slapstick results. Wacky. Not necessarily very funny, however.

--there was a group performance poem done as a valentine to Richard Battista-- a man apparently trying to get his transplanted liver back from his soon to be ex-wife. Sweet.

--The newest cast member—Megan, I believe—moved around the audience trying to be as cordial as possible as the rest of the cast tried to get her to be more confrontational. Another cute sketch.

--one of a number of Obama playlets, Our Oath, Your Office featured three different US citizens swearing an oath on books that mean a lot more to them than the King James bible as they vowed not to deify the new president or expect unrealistic things from him, closing out by never allowing another 8 years to pass like they just did by electing another man like Jr. Bush.

--Untitled Simultaneous Rain Play was a graceful little bit of minimalist drama featuring a fine mist and two cast members dunking their heads in buckets of water..

--As near as I could make out, My White Trash Town Meeting was a monologue done with a pair of guys shouting nearly-intelligible gibberish with a southern drawl.

--When She Opened Her Mouth To Scream, There Were Icicles Inside was a biographical monologue performed by--I believe cast member Megan Mercier as she dragged a chair along the ground with her arms while sitting in it . . . vaguely resembling a quadruped as she did so.

--Facebook was a comical staged adaptation of the popular social networking site. Cute.

--Single Ladies Call and Response Twister featured a couple of the female cast members talking about being single while playing twister. That annoying song by Beyonce about “putting a ring on it,” was involved. This was almost kind of interesting. More shorts should probably feature Twister.

--There was a short which involved the cast talking about love. Balloons were popped.

. –Deja Air Guitar featured the cast re-doing the above short with a few guys donning heavy metal wigs and air guitaring to Sweet Child of Mine for no apparent reason.

--The whole thing ended with Neo-Futurist Death Match Monologues—a piece in which various cast members performed monologues from various dramas while the rest of the cast acted like they were trying to knock them out of the center of the stage.

It should be pointed out that, in the intro, Jessica Anne said that what they were doing was not improv. That being said, much of what was presented here was slightly surrealist light comedy. Very little of it seemed to be reaching for anything more than that. The format in question seems much more set-up to emphasize comedy. The more dramatic elements seemed comic by association—often in spite of themselves. One of the reasons why Caitlin’s Can You Find The Play? bit was so good was the fact that it had a dramatic element to its comedy that was not at odds with how funny it was. The synthesis between the drama and the comedy was particularly effective.

Chicago's The Neo-Futurists perform Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind every Friday and Saturday night at 11:30 pm with 7pm performances every Sunday.

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