Careening Is a Skill: Estranged Musicale | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Careening Is a Skill: Estranged Musicale 

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Curious Theater Branch

at Prop Thtr

Careening Is a Skill might best be described as a Zippy cartoon set to music: what at first seems a plainly warped story of an insane asylum eventually has you laughing and wondering who the real crazies are. That is, if you give it a chance and just sit, watch, and listen to this mix of vaudevillian skit, musical theater, and high camp. And if you don't mind not understanding all of the myriad and sometimes obscure references and puns.

Before the play opens, as the audience wanders in, we see a man standing alone onstage, frozen in the process of reaching down to tie his shoe. This is the Nothing Is Everything Man (Louis Arata), an everyman who, we learn later, has become so lost and panic-stricken that he cannot act, cannot even tie his shoelace. This untied shoelace so effectively captures the Nothing Man's debilitating malaise that I immediately wanted to rush out and tie it for him.

The play begins with a song called "Darkness, Darkness." Lefty Fizzle then enters and confirms the impression of despair. Fizzle (Beau O'Reilly) is an "old, farting vaudevillian" whose dilapidated costume recalls a circus ringleader come on hard times. As the master of ceremonies for the evening, he informs us straight off that "It was the worst of times, the meanest of times, a season of shit."

What follows is less narrative theater than a Brechtian showcase, as the Nothing Is Everything Man careens from one encounter to another. While the sum of the parts does not produce a clear story, it does make for provocative theater. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle of a cubist painting: up close, seeing the outline of each puzzle piece may distort the overall effect somewhat, but if you step back, you'll find something intriguing and enjoyable, although it's still not literal.

With Fizzle as our guide, we watch as the Nothing Is Everything Man is systematically battered about in "this sleazy little asylum we call home." Meant to be an actual asylum, the setting is clearly not your usual mental hospital (a strange concept in itself). In this hospital, both staff and inmates caricature authority and normal behavior. Five actors wearing one large, white coat collectively portray the staff, a creature called "Dr. Body, the Force in White." Dr. Body brutalizes the Nothing Is Everything Man by enforcing arbitrary rules and by putting him "through a few personality changes you never thought necessary."

The six inmates often appear quite harmless, even functional. But eventually their manic personality twists emerge: the compulsive cleaning lady says her toughest opponent is "the slime on the soul . . . I like my organs clean." And the Rational Man, "just a guy with a power tie," taunts the Nothing Is Everything Man, declaring that "control is freedom."

An especially engaging and telling patient is Rosa Mae Carbuncle (Jenny Magnus), an animated, furious talker who eventually reveals her belief that she's got a "cancer the size of a watermelon. It's always growin' and always swellin'." The riddle for Carbuncle is why the staff, who don't believe in the tumor growing on her neck, still give her pills to kill it. You can't see it; but that doesn't mean something's not there.

The riddle the show seeks to untangle is how to maintain the ability to feel in a frightening, confusing world. To be unfeeling, immobile, and passive is the most natural response--yet that is to admit defeat and, ultimately, to give in to death.

One of the issues Careening attacks is our culture's materialism. It implies that we bolster our self-worth and well-being with acquisitions, by surrounding ourselves with possessions. When the Nothing Is Everything Man talks about panic, he relates it to money. "It's a special feeling," he says, when you have "no sense of security." He used to feel secure stuffing his pockets with cash and coins. But in his present immobility, he's become "financially inarticulate"--he's got no money to speak of.

Careening Is a Skill avoids the fits and starts suggested by its title, yet it is at times murky. This may be attributable in part to Maestro Subgum and the Whole's long history. This rock band has experimented for years, offering rock concerts, cabaret shows, and musicals, and many of the ideas here may have been developed over the years. At times when the lyrics and dialogue lost me, I felt it might be because some inside joke was involved.

But overall the script, by O'Reilly and Magnus, is tight and provocative. What I first thought to be an inappropriately hopeful and simple ending--the Nothing Man is saved from his living death--later struck me as enigmatic: Perhaps it requires a downright miracle to save the common man, or our common sense, from the maddening pursuits of this world. Perhaps the prospect of the thinking, feeling individual being obliterated is so catastrophic that Magnus and O'Reilly cannot begin to imagine their hero dying.

O'Reilly's and Magnus's performances, as well as their writing, vitalize this show. O'Reilly's Lefty Fizzle unifies the evening, provides some exposition, and is fascinating to watch. With his hair a mess of irregular ponytails jutting out at unlikely angles, like the sprung coils of some failed machine, Fizzle smiles and winks at and cajoles the audience, as if in complicity. Add his constant twisting and mangling of stock cultural phrases, and the effect is to hook the audience, building on a bond of common experience.

Magnus, who plays all six of the hospital inmates, has so much force and enthusiasm that she could fill the shoes of six more characters. From the ethereal Chloe, a welcoming committee of one forever inviting staff and patients into her bed, to the Rational Man, Magnus fills the stage with flair and conviction.

The music, also by O'Reilly and Magnus along with Michael Greenberg, from the start helped establish this shows uniqueness and vitality.

I saw Careening at the Broadway Arts Center, where Stefan Brun's direction transformed a small, tight room with chairs on three sides into something almost boundless. The actors moved easily, and played naturally in three directions. Since then, the show has moved to Prop Thtr, where I hope they retain this same remarkable sense of space and staging.


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