Enormous, Wild, Poetic | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Enormous, Wild, Poetic 

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Curious Theatre Branch



at Cafe Voltaire

Going to the Curious Theatre Branch is like visiting the back room of your favorite bar: the place is a dump, the people are friendly, and by the time you leave, your mind will be wonderfully altered. Their current offering, Natural Hostages, is so full of fascinating ideas, beguiling characters, and beautiful images--and so hysterically funny from start to finish--that its quasi-operatic two-and-a-half-hour staging can hardly contain the magnificence.

To dissect or analyze Natural Hostages seems foolhardy. The play simply gushes its torrents of imagination, forming magical little eddies here and there that allow us to reflect for a moment before being swept along again. It's set in a mythical land where everyone longs for the day when an invitation for lunch will come down from the Host and Hostess of the Hill, Blaze Wacherstyle (Colm O'Reilly) and Pouty Sugarface (Jenny Magnus). Unbeknownst to their guests, Blaze and Pouty lace their colas with "cesium," mysteriously allowing them to suck the very life out of their victims, thereby remaining forever young themselves.

This simple story allows playwright Bryn Magnus to bring together a wild mix of ridiculous yet curiously familiar characters, all of whose lives are more or less centered around ascending the hill. There are Meta and Nathan Gorgey (Marianne Fieber and Mark Comiskey), "the honeymooningest couple in the world," who have successfully avoided consummating their marriage for two years in the hopes of becoming famous comedians and being invited up. There is Earl Treechair (Paul Tamney), a joke of a sculptor--he works in asphalt--whose life is one humiliating insult after another until he receives his invitation. And there is Ros (Jenny Magnus), the earthy, self-sufficient sprout farmer who wants nothing to do with the whole business. The curious figures of the Mephistophelian Dr. Signialli (Beau O'Reilly) and his sidekick Crysalis (Jennifer Cozzi), a woman who has successfully taught herself not to feel a thing, hover throughout the play.

Most playwrights would have enormous difficulty weaving these elements into a unified whole, and Bryn Magnus certainly leaves a few threads hanging. But a common human weakness links nearly all the characters: they seem unable to feel genuine emotions. Each instead sets a deliberate course for the future, constructs a hoped-for self--comedian, artist, Hostess of the Hill, etc--and then tries to believe so strongly in this artificial self that the deep and painful emptiness inside will somehow be forgotten.

As a result, when people finally get what they've wanted for so long, it leaves them more empty than before. When the ever-abused Treechair kills himself and, paradoxically, rises to the top of the heap, forcing even the magical Dr. Signialli to sing and dance for him in the underworld, he can find bliss only in loving a fellow corpse. When Meta and Nathan Gorgey finally rent a cheap hotel room to consummate their marriage, they go to such extraordinary lengths to feel some sort of erotic attraction for each other that they exhaust themselves and fall asleep without even a kiss.

This summary of Natural Hostages necessarily reduces a complex work that resonates on many levels. But even if this through line were all the play had to offer, it would still be an important work of theater because it illustrates a common human failing in a loving and joyous way. It does not gloss over the pain, sadness, and fear that often result when we admit that we don't know who we are or where we're going. Neither does it wallow in angst. Because nearly all commercial theater in Chicago that purports to address such human issues remains safely cute or sentimental, it's refreshing to see these artists, who probably aren't making a dime off this project, investing their work with such emotional honesty and thereby adding something unique to the theater.

The cast is truly superb. I kept waiting for the weak actor, but none ever showed up. Even the friend who accompanied me, himself a talented actor, continually gasped in disbelief whenever a new character made an entrance. Each actor here puts everything on the line--the few mistakes are gloriously huge, and the successes are simply transcendent. Most impressive, the cast is able to handle Bryn Magnus's wildly poetic language, making image after image appear with crystalline clarity.

Natural Hostages is an enormous undertaking, and perhaps by some standards a rather messy one. Certainly this play, being given its first staging, will benefit from continued revision. Bryn Magnus is lucky to work with performers up to his level of artistry, and the performers are lucky to have material commensurate with their skills. It's wonderful to see these artists, who've been working together for the past four years, reach such a level of maturity and sophistication.

The Clownarchists--Drew Richardson and George Fuller--stand at the beginning of their artistic development. Their one-hour performance at Cafe Voltaire, The Evolution of D and Gerald, about two intentionally lackluster and talentless clowns who spend the evening trying to evolve, is full of unintentional missteps and false starts. But the agenda these artists have set for themselves--to explore the violent and sadistic side of the human soul through a clown show--is so extraordinarily difficult that at this point in their careers they can't be expected to succeed.

Their work is best in its quieter moments, when simple, seemingly unplanned gestures reveal an endearing humanity. Gerald (Fuller), an impresariolike figure who always tries to put everything in order, at one point gets so caught up in imagining that his innards are spilling out that he delicately hikes up his trousers so as not to step in the goo. D (Richardson), a quiet, gentle, and slightly dazed Stan Laurel type, delights in his discovery that by manipulating toilet plungers he can make them speak--and speak in different accents.

The Clownarchists continually acknowledge their own performance shortcomings--pointing out their shabby production values (which are about as shabby as they can get), scurrying around in the dark whispering, "Quick! Scene change! Scene change!" and even reading an excerpt from their terrible review in New City. Such simple honesty draws the audience along with them. Clearly these performers are not trying to impress anyone else since they can't even impress themselves.

Richardson's performance is quite solid throughout. His gestures are precise, elegant, and committed. Fuller tends to work a little too hard, engaging in a lot of patter that sometimes deflates the tension of the scenes. But both performers share such an unaffected intimacy onstage that it's comforting to be in their presence. Let's hope the Clownarchists continue to stumble along--for unless they're allowed to fall on their faces now and again, their training will never be complete.

Chicago has a reputation as a place where young artists can develop their techniques and experiment with new forms. The Curious Theatre Branch and the Clownarchists are doing just that, with delightful and at times breathtaking results. Sadly, only a handful of people were there to watch on the evenings I attended. I hope these artists will not be discouraged by the disappointing turnouts, because Chicago stands to gain much from these groups.


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