Clashing Ethics | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Clashing Ethics 

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JELLY BELLY

Victory Gardens Studio Theater

DISREMEMBERED

Chicago Theatre Collective

at Blind Parrot

Each one of us builds an ethical system. We can't help it--the human mind is designed to draw conclusions about experience, and those conclusions accumulate into beliefs about what's worthwhile and good. This remarkable ability sets us apart from animals and gives rise to our most noble achievements. But some people create ethical systems that support monstrous actions. Many Nazis, after all, sincerely believed they would improve the world by exterminating the Jews, and the Ayatollah seems convinced that murdering novelist Salman Rushdie would please Allah.

However bizarre the systems people invent, their beliefs often have an internal logic that makes them seem unassailable. Just try talking bigots out of their prejudices. And if you accept some of the premises on which even the strangest system is built, you may find that it seems to have a certain validity.

Apparently this really bothers Charles Smith, whose play Jelly Belly pits one ethical system against another. Jelly Belly is a neighborhood bully who believes in doing unto others before they do unto him. In his view there are only three types of people in this world--sheep, shepherds, and lamb chops. The sheep are "dumb critters" who follow the shepherds, and the lamb chops are just waiting to be gobbled up. Jelly's goal is to be a shepherd, and he uses his peculiar charisma to recruit sheep.

According to Jelly's code of conduct, murder is a moral imperative when one's honor is at stake. The play takes place on the day he is released from jail--after serving six months for killing his brother-in-law. "I didn't want to kill the dude," Jelly admits. "I used to like him. He was my boy. But he never should've called the police on me. I told him not to come back, but he came back anyway. So I blew his mutherfuckin' brains out, turned on the television, called the police, and told them to come and get his body."

As soon as he gets out of jail, Jelly pays a visit to Mike, who used to be one of his followers. In fact, Mike may have beaten a man to death with a brick while under the influence of some angel dust supplied by Jelly. But Mike has started to straighten his life out. He has a job as a construction worker, and he and his friend Kenny dream of starting their own construction business. Their ethical system changed drastically while Jelly was in jail, but now Jelly is on Mike's front porch, challenging him.

"If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times," Jelly says. "You play by the rules, Mike, you get fucked every time." Mike tries to ignore his assertions, but they have a seductive pull, especially since he just lost a supervisor's job to a college boy with less experience.

Kenny starts to feel a similar pull when Jelly tells him to kill the white boy who stole money and drugs Kenny had been holding for Jelly. If Kenny doesn't, Jelly says, "Word's going to get out that he's a pork chop, that he let a white boy burn him. Next thing you know, every sorry mutherfucker on the street is going to think they can burn him too. . . . Disgrace has been laid upon this boy's head. He's going to have to take revenge or live with it for the rest of his life."

Kenny isn't very bright, so it's not surprising he fails to challenge the premises of Jelly's ethical system. But even Mike's newfound ethical system is shaken by Jelly's logic. The play demonstrates the truth of what Wallace Shawn wrote in the appendix to his play Aunt Dan and Lemon: "Morality is hard to protect, because morality is only a few thoughts in our heads. And just as we quickly grow accustomed to brutal deeds and make way before them, so we are quickly stunned into foggy submission by the brutal thoughts which, in our striving for comfort, we have allowed into our minds and which can snuff the life out of morality in a matter of moments if we happen to look the other way."

The ethical dilemma in Jelly Belly is intensified by Tony Smith's imposing presence in the title role. With his ponderous gut hanging over his belt and his deep voice rising to an intimidating roar, he embodies a man brutal enough to kill and clever enough to justify his brutality. Charles Glenn endows Mike with the quiet intelligence of a natural leader, while Oscar Jordon projects the tentative, wavering weakness of Kenny. Donald Douglass has enormous fun with the character of Bruce, a doped-up fool whose bleary, listless demeanor becomes focused only when he perceives an opportunity to get high. And Diane White gives a fine performance in the small role of Mike's wife, who is immune to the power of Jelly Belly's thinking.

In a program note the playwright says Jelly Belly is based on a man he met in 1982 who had "calmly and openly admitted to murdering several people." After each conviction this man spent no more than six months in jail. But what shocked Smith most was the system of values this man espoused--a system that seemed to exist on a perfectly solid foundation. "I understood that Jelly Belly was no more an aberration than I was," Smith writes. As Wallace Shawn recognized, the difference between a saint and a monster is just a few thoughts, and thoughts are notoriously capricious.

Speaking of ethics, the Chicago Theatre Collective should consider the morality of subjecting audiences to Disremembered. This incoherent mishmash of theater and film is a witless, self-indulgent display of pretension. Instead of recognizing how awful the show is, the people who created it went ahead and staged it--all two boring, insufferable hours of it--and then had the audacity to ask for $10 a ticket.

According to the press release, Disremembered "explores the way myth inspires and confines us, and how people discover the power to transform the myths that restrict them."

Sure. What actually happens is this: Gus (short for Auguste Rodin, and played by a skilled actor named Vito Bitondo) putters around the studio, working on some project that's not going well. Meanwhile, his assistant and mistress, Claudine (Lorell J. Wyatt), unveils "living statues" while reciting myths. ("Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things, rose naked from Chaos . . .") Gus and Claudine are not getting along. She wants to go away to the islands, but he is worried about the commission he is working on. From time to time one of them sits down, aims a remote control at a sheet hung at the back of the stage, and turns on a movie.

This movie is supposed to be a spoof of mythology, and there are traces of humor in it. Good and Evil compete at creating the world. Good creates wheat, Evil creates locusts; Good creates pizza, Evil creates anchovies. But this silent, grainy, black-and-white film is so utterly inept that the characters--who wear banners identifying themselves as "Laughter," "Pity," "Wisdom," and so on--look like a bunch of high school sophomores goofing around with a Super-8 movie camera.

How did this play ever get produced? I suspect that the people involved in this project were excited by their idea--and reluctant to admit that it wasn't working out. So they convinced themselves that the show's obscurity was profound and its silliness was satirical.

Disremembered, however, is merely obscure and silly. Written by Louise Freistadt, with Julie Hays and Lorell J. Wyatt, the show is built on a tantalizing idea: mythology has a powerful influence on us, even though the function of myths remains widely misunderstood. A play that actually illuminated the way myths inspire and confine us would be fascinating. But the premise behind Disremembered quickly falls apart, leaving a jumble of images strewn over the stage and the screen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jennifer Girard, Suzanne Plunkett.

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