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Conjunction of Bodies 

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OPEN SYZYGY--SOME MADRAS PARABLES

at Club Lower Links

Boosters and sentimentalists like to extol the immediacy of the theater: that mystic communal energy that's supposed to overtake audience and actors alike when they realize they're in the same room together, sharing a reality that's begun and gone in just a couple of hours.

The talk is mostly bullshit, of course. Traditional lore about "on" and "off" nights notwithstanding, actors are typically expected to repeat the same performance over and over again; most mainstream plays are crafted to maintain a sort of jolly impersonality; and most mainstream audiences aren't interested in establishing a rapport with a performer who hasn't been on TV. Immediacy isn't in fact the draw it's cracked up to be. People don't care about it. If you don't believe me, check out what the crowds are paying to enjoy the spontaneity and intimacy of The Phantom of the Opera.

This is a shame. A big shame. One of those big, fat, rotten decline of civilization/coarsening of human values shames you see all the time in the arts these days. Because immediacy really is a crucial part of the pleasure and point of theater. I love the movies, but I feel a genuine sense of privilege in spending time with performers--real, live, particular performers--whose talents and sensibilities, energies and sweaty bodies are physically present to me in a small space at a certain moment.

A sense of privilege. It's a great blessing to be able to go to the Blue Rider Theater in Pilsen and find Donna Blue Lachman there, dishing scary, funny, almost mythic dirt on herself and her Haitian voodoo days. Or to visit Theater Oobleck, wherever they currently are, and see them snip the social fabric into tiny pieces, throw it around: a brilliant confetti. These and a few others do something that exists nowhere but where they are and no other time but when they do it. I can go to any number of cities and see a standard Phantom, an average Neil Simon or Alan Ayckbourn or Wendy Wasserstein; Lachman and Oobleck are untranslatable. Unlicensable. If the theater valued rarity like the art world does, they'd be considered priceless.

And so would Beau O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus.

A pair of unusual cats who found each other, O'Reilly and Magnus put on shows under various names, denoting various combinations of forms and friends. Maestro Subgum and the Whole is one O'Reilly/Magnus constellation, Curious Theater Branch is another. I've seen and enjoyed some of their more elaborate efforts: honest-to-god theatrical productions, with casts and characters and start-to-finish story lines. But my favorite encounters with them involve them alone. I like the evenings of monologues, dialogues, poetic stories, and peculiar songs they put together and perform now and then--cleverly, intimately, untranslatably--as "Madras Parables."

Their latest work, Open Syzygy, is a collection of 12 such parables. Syzygy is an astronomical term referring to a conjunction of heavenly bodies; the meaning's been broadened here to include human bodies, as well--specifically, human bodies like Magnus and O'Reilly, trying to negotiate some kind of emotional conjunction in the face of intriguing, if not always friendly, opposition.

You can see the bodies fight it out both metaphorically and physically in the Jules Feifferish "You Think You're Better Than Me," with its classic cartoon depiction of a bad mood made worse by solace--and in "Make Me a Phrenologist": a surreal rank-out, where boxing antagonists try to poeticize each other into submission. In "Get In!" Magnus simply grabs O'Reilly and holds on, saying, "I wanna be one person!" while he tries to argue the virtues of living separate existences and visiting from time to time.

The syzygy's not just in the material, however, but in the two natures putting it onstage. With his goatee, his long samurai ponytail, his Mr. Mellow ease, and his jazz references, O'Reilly projects a beat cool. His voice is saxophone breathy and deadpan sly; and when he watches Magnus's solos, he does so with an offhanded, almost critical detachment that suggests that guy in "Get In!"--capable of taking a tourist's look even at what's closest to him.

Magnus, on the other hand, watches O'Reilly work with what seems like loving fascination. Her style is warmer, more whimsical, and lots more physical. Where O'Reilly mostly just stands there, blowing his figurative reed, Magnus moves--doing her "shaggy waggle-ass dance" when it's called for, and taking the occasional leap at a front-row lap.

Magnus asserts her sweet self too insistently at times--as in a piece called "Johnny Pig," in which she plays a punch-drunk small-time boxer on the edge of a spiritual crisis. Magnus's Johnny carries an interesting homoerotic undertow (made all the more vivid by her own gender), and achieves a quietly moving apotheosis when he describes his desperate Q & A with God: "'Please, please, please'--'OK, OK, OK.'" But her tag line--"My heart fucks my soul up the ass"--comes across cloyingly despite its superficial vulgarity. She fails to communicate a necessary violence.

Magnus's art-about-art piece, "Revelation," provides a much stronger context for her peculiar sensibility, allowing her to dither and dance while gently mocking her tendency to dither and dance--and simultaneously making a serious point about the absolute necessity for dithering and dancing in a world that won't.

O'Reilly, meanwhile, offers the masterpiece of the evening in his three-part "Welfare Mouth": a witty, scary, marvelously subtle narrative that--very coolly, in the O'Reilly manner--compounds small ironies into an unexpectedly powerful image of art and love in a world that, again, won't. Half eulogy, half satire, "Welfare Mouth" is a particular necessity for anyone who ever encountered Beau's father, James--an elemental spirit of Chicago theater, who died last May of emphysema.

You'll never see anything like it, anywhere else.

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