BlankSlate; The Usual Haunts | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

BlankSlate; The Usual Haunts 

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BLANKSLATE, Plasticene, PAC/edge Performance Festival, at the Athenaeum Theatre, and THE USUAL HAUNTS, PAC/edge Performance Festival, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Every play begins with a metaphorical blank slate. But unfortunately most directors spoon-feed their audiences, providing instantly recognizable characters and situations and plenty of anxiety-relieving exposition.

Not Dexter Bullard and Plasticene. They tease us for an hour or more in BlankSlate with inconclusive contextualizing--props that may be literal or figurative, costumes that may or may not be significant, theatrical beats that may or may not be building blocks in an elusive plot. The four ensemble members tell incomplete stories about sexual rivalry, male bonding, and various other power relations. They also perform physical variations on the theme of actors and blackboards, writing on them, swinging from them, or making our flesh crawl by scraping their nails across these blank slates. Executing all their movements--lifts, flips, staged combat--with virtuoso zeal, this athletic company neglects just one thing: making it clear what the show means. And thank God for that.

Connor Kalista's sweet piece devoted to the Athenaeum, The Usual Haunts, is much less ambiguous. Taking a page from self-guided tours of art exhibits, Kalista hands out CD players to audience members. The narration we hear, however, has almost nothing to do with the space, though a few facts do filter in. Instead Kalista had his cast of 11 record three wistful, reflective stories that may be intertwined. Each one is set in a different location--beginning in the lobby, we move to the adjacent lounge or the third floor--reinterpreted in light of the storytellers' own memories.

The most effective tale is a haunting meditation on ambivalence and loneliness told by a narrator who at once wants to escape her past and misses her old friends. As we listen to the story, we stand in the large, empty, windswept porch outside the church next door.

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