Learning to Fly 

Lookingglass Theater in Training

"Your penis is on my hand!" the actress is screaming.

Given the nature of Chicago theater, it's possible that the expostulation, delivered by one actor to another, has been uttered before. But it's unlikely that before tonight the participants in the conversation occupied quite the same positions. The scene is a large loft in eastern Pilsen. A large bank of windows looks north to a glittery Loop. To one side is an oversized seesaw contraption, to the other a bank of treadmills. Covering most of the floor is a large tumbling mat. On the mat stand nearly a dozen young men and women, all looking up. Above them is the scene of the alleged genital-digital contact: 15 feet in the air, on a bulky nylon rope called "the web," two awkward acrobats--their hands clutching loops in the rope, their bodies half intertwined and jutting out from it at odd angles--spin and twirl like circus performers.

And circus performers is what they're training to be, at least tonight. Learning "the web" is part of elaborate preparations the ambitious Lookingglass troupe is making for a production that won't be seen onstage till March. But over the last couple of months 17 members of the group--including nonactors like the play's designers and producer--have attended classes five nights a week on a smorgasbord of new skills: advanced tumbling and acrobatics, clowning, Russian dance and song, and more. And there's more to come: hanging from the ceiling is an array of heavy chains scheduled to hold the apparatus that will allow members of the company to fly.

Why is Lookingglass going to such lengths? Codirector Heidi Stillman answers matter-of-factly: "In the book, people fly."

"The book" is The Master and Margarita, a bizarre absurdist epic written in the 1940s by star-crossed Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov. Originally a doctor, Bulgakov is considered one of his country's premiere 20th-century authors, but his life story is a sad one. His writing career fatefully coincided roughly with Stalin's political one, and his brand of passionate and sarcastic parody was exactly the wrong sort of thing to be creating in those days; he was harassed by Soviet authorities his entire adult life. (One translator of The Master and Margarita, Mirra Ginsburg, writes that Bulgakov once calculated that of 300 articles written about his work in the Soviet press, 298 were negative.)

One of the more poignant stories about Bulgakov is the often recounted episode involving a long and pleading letter he wrote to Stalin himself. "He said he didn't believe in communism," marvels Northwestern prof Irwin Weil. Weil is a 40-year student of Russia and its literature who delighted the company with lectures on the book and demonstrations of Russian folk songs. "You understand he was taking his life in his hands. He said to Stalin, 'Either let me go to France, or give me a job with the Moscow Art Theater and I'll produce anything you say, quote, "honestly."'

"Interestingly, Stalin replied with a job. He was one man Stalin did not kill, and he killed millions of others for much less."

Bulgakov did relatively minor work at the theater for most of the rest of his life. (He efficiently satirized his work there in a play called Black Snow, mounted here by the Goodman last year.) On the side he continued to write novels and plays, which were routinely condemned or shut down.

The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov's last work, is essentially a comic meditation on faith and the existence of God, one stirred into being by a jejune intellectual's telling a man named Woland that Jesus was merely a fictional character--which delights Woland because he's really the devil. Accompanied by a retinue that includes a large black cat who walks on his hind legs and talks, Woland gleefully tears a path through Moscow, performing pranks, creating disturbances, and sending many who meet him to insane asylums. Interspersed with this story are occasional chapters that tell an idiosyncratic version of the gospels; while this story is begun by Woland himself, they later turn out to be chapters of a book written by a tortured writer called the Master, who is in love with a married woman named Margarita, both of whom the devil manipulates but eventually spares, apparently because they are agents of God. At the end, Woland blows town, leaving Moscow nonplussed and shaken in his wake.

Some of the humor is more than a bit metaphysical, and the casual reader can be forgiven for wondering what in heck the book is really about. "The Master and Margarita is an extraordinary combination of three things," explains Weil. "First of all, it's a version of the Faust legend--Margarita was the woman Faust loved. Secondly, it's a very straightforward retelling of the book of Matthew. Finally, it's a wacko send-up of Soviet life, using all the instruments the Russians have loved for decades: the devil, good food, parties. The way he puts it together is incredible."

The book seems like a difficult vehicle for the stage, filled as it is with every manner of absurdist happenstance, including dizzying spatial and temporal jumps, routine transubstantiations and vanishings, naked women flying on broomsticks, a grand magic show that includes a decapitation, and lots of other gore and violence. Its locales include more than a dozen different settings in Moscow and Israel, not to mention a remote paradise and various spots in the heavens.

But Lookingglass, formed by a bunch of Northwestern students in 1988, is known for its graceful and demanding adaptations of massive literary works; the group's self-conscious intellectualism is leavened with lyrical staging and a robust athleticism. In the past, these have combined to produce compelling productions of works as diverse as The Odyssey, The Jungle, The Scarlet Letter, and The Arabian Nights, all marked with large helpings of dance, acrobatics, and music.

But the complexities of The Master and Margarita made even the epic undertaking that was The Arabian Nights seem a breeze--and for this venture they wouldn't have visionary director Mary Zimmerman on hand. So the company decided to forego a planned late-'93 production to prepare. As Stillman worked on the adaptation (it will eventually be credited to her and the ensemble), codirector David Catlin, producer Kate Churchill, and artistic director Philip Smith organized 32 evenings of training sessions with nine "workshop leaders."

"These are all skills we wanted to learn," says Catlin, "but since we all have jobs and production work and acting to do, we thought, why not just not put on a fall show and work on the things we always wanted to do?"

The workshop leaders included a Russian folk dance instructor, Katya Kapelnikov, who put the group through a demanding regimen in fractured English; magician Eugene Burger, who taught the group sleight of hand and other tricks after swearing them to secrecy; acrobat Sylvia Hernandez and clown Jeffrey Jenkins, both from Ringling Brothers; and an array of physical trainers who helped the group develop the muscle they'd need for the antics. Only after the training was done did the company go into official rehearsals; they're working this month and next in anticipation of a March 12 opening in association with Steppenwolf at the latter's studio theater.

Practice sessions start out with Catlin demanding each performer's agenda.

"What are your goals for the evening?"

"A full workout and one foot on the web," says one cast member.

"I'm going to try the forward flop off the teeterboard," says another.

"I want my leg to stop hurting," says a third, to general laughter.

Over the years, the Lookingglass method has given ensemble members various pains and even landed a few in emergency rooms. "Doug [Hara] and Larry [DiStasi] got glass in their knees," recites Stillman. "Doug slammed himself into a pole. Plus Joy [Gregory] jammed her ankle, and I have a cyst on my wrist from doing gymnastics on a concrete floor."

As the cast members take their places, artistic director Smith beams. "If we can master all this it's going to be just buckets of energy flying out at the audience. Far more than jazz hands could ever do."

Jazz hands?

"You know"--Smith strikes a hokey vaudeville pose, hands spread out, face beaming--"grin and pose, put on the smile."

Some actors mount treadmills; others tumble on the mat; a pair climb the two webs. But the most imposing challenge tonight is the seesaw contraption, known as the teeterboard. Almost every Lookingglass member, producer Churchill included, will eventually learn to be catapulted into the air and execute a flip.

One person stands on the down side of the board, rigged up to a pulley and a safety rope held by the patient Hernandez, who became a professional acrobat at the age of six. Two other cast members jump off a four-foot platform onto the teeterboard's up side. This produces an immense crash! as it hits the floor and the flippee is tossed up into the stratosphere, eventually bouncing onto a thick landing pad. Hernandez swings Tarzan-like from her end of the rope to break the force of the landing.

The key, says Smith, who's about to be the first to make the jump without rigging, is for the flippee to launch him or herself at just the right moment. "It's very hard," he says. "If you jump too late, the board sends your knees up to your chin. If you go too fast, you're off the board too soon, and it's hard on the guys who are jumping when they hit the floor with no resistance."

As Smith takes up his position on the board, the tumbling stops and the web twirlers lower themselves to the ground. Talk ceases.

The two-member propulsion team climbs the platform and readies itself. While the landing area is large, there's no guarantee that Smith will hit it, or that even if he does he won't hurt himself in the process. Does Lookingglass have insurance? "Tons," says Churchill.

Smith is flanked by two spotters, ready to catch him if things go awry. The watchful Hernandez preps them: "If I say 'No!' it means he's not going where he's supposed to be going."

Smith slaps his thigh, the sign to begin. The pair hop off the platform. The teeterboard slams to the floor. Smith rockets into the air, flips elegantly, and lands feet first--right where he's supposed to.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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