Carnival Shoes | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Carnival Shoes 

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Igloo, the Theatrical Group

It's a writer's cliche to say you couldn't write about some trauma for a number of years because you were just "too close to the material." You needed time to sort through it, get a grip on it, digest it, etc.

Turns out, there's something to be said for the cliche. Maria Tirabassi didn't wait for her trauma to settle. She set right to work, turning last summer's shock into this summer's show. This show, Carnival Shoes, is an undigested mess.

About a year ago, someone Tirabassi loves got deeply involved in a new-age cult and, judging by Tirabassi's account, suffered a nervous breakdown. Tirabassi helped reclaim this beloved someone, which meant not only healing but deprogramming her. In the process, Tirabassi got a close-up look at the human-potential movement with its Werner Erhards and its L. Ron Hubbards, and came to think of it as an evil, soul-snatching scam. That view provided the angry spark for Carnival Shoes.

Events themselves provided the plot. Carnival Shoes is an only lightly veiled, if heavily partisan, chronicle of the Beloved Someone's actual journey through human-potential hell. Named Lena Bella and played by Tirabassi herself, she feels bereft over the death of her father, frustrated by the impenetrability of her lover. So she follows a friend's advice and signs up for an expensive, intensive, est-oid program called "Neva"--one of those you'll-pee-when-we-say-it's-time-to-pee affairs, where she's hectored into achieving a standard-issue enlightenment.

Having established its hold over her, Neva won't let Lena go. Nor does she want it to. The organization's close-knit, authoritarian ambience comforts her, offers her a womblike sense of well-being. She reacts violently when her old friend Rosa Blue (the Tirabassi surrogate, played by Kathleen Horrigan) shows up, trying to coax her back into the mainstream.

Still, she gets coaxed nonetheless. Supported by friends, by a network of recovered Neva addicts, and--oddly enough--by a gun she waves at her psychic jailers, Lena makes her escape. The play's final passage shows her blissfully happy, dancing in the carnival of life.

Like everything else I've seen by Tirabassi and her director/husband, Christopher Peditto, Carnival Shoes is a visual hoot: a further example of their gorgeous, playful, make-do theater, their postvideo poor theater, with its combination of homemade funk and show-biz smarts. The closing carnival bit, for instance, gives us a stunning, blissfully absurd image of Lena and friends dancing around wearing outsized construction-paper costumes, joyful and disheveled, like refugees from some grammar school production of Ubu Roi.

That image and others--like the one where Lena signals her descent into the Neva netherworld by donning a pair of RayBans and joining a snaky conga line--provide more than visual fun. They offer narrative landmarks. Which become absolutely essential when a script's as incoherent and uncommunicative as this one. Unable to dissociate herself from her subject, unwilling to expose her Beloved Someone--and herself--to the very audience she's trying to reach, Tirabassi resorts to speaking in code. She has characters utter an incomprehensible and irrelevant poetic gibberish. She denies us basic information about who her characters are. I would have been completely lost with regard to Rosa if I hadnt known some of the autobiographical facts behind the play. And I still have no idea what that guy with the curly black hair is supposed to be doing.

Worst of all, Tirabassi speaks code to herself, refusing to question her own assumptions about Lena's odyssey. Why was Lena susceptible to the Neva con? Tirabassi suggests that it had to do with her dead father and her insensitive lover. But I lost my father and suffered through bad relationships without ending up in a cult. So have a lot of other people. There must be something more.

Tirabassi never questions Rosa's motives in wanting Lena out of Neva. She never wonders whether the real world's any better than Neva. She never considers the possibility that spiritual adventures are inherently risky and that a would-be acolyte must take responsibility for herself. She never entertains ambiguities. For Tirabassi, Lena's either in the pit of Neva or the light of carnival. She cant allow herself to look further.

Not yet, anyway. Tirabassi and Peditto tend to communicate abstractly, associatively, through their images. And Carnival Shoes is rich with images. But this time the images are hiding something. There's a moment in Carnival Shoes when Lena's changing her clothes behind a curtain of parachute cloth; we see her shadow as she takes off her Neva blacks and puts on her carnival colors. It's an effective picture. But it's also characteristic of the shadows dominating the script. For all her effort, Tirabassi clearly isn't ready to let this particular trauma stand naked. Not yet. It's too soon.

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