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Summer Shorts

Neo-Futurists

Actors, like jazz musicians, are not typically known for their intellects: American audiences pay to see performers get into it, not think. But great acting, like great jazz playing, demands a powerful intellect that can craft a momentary spasm into part of a larger whole. The shrewdness of jazz piano giant Oscar Peterson, for example--praised by one critic for his "concentrations of thought"--pushes his playing to unparalleled heights. No matter how far outside the melody his solos take him, no matter how outrageous his chord substitutions, he always seems to know exactly where he is and, more important, where he's going. His genius lies in keeping everything on track, a skill very few actors seem to comprehend.

The Neo-Futurists, in their long-running late-night smash Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, have proved themselves to be among the most intellectually gifted of Chicago theater artists, but they've never been particularly interested in keeping anything on track. Performing 30 plays every night in a random order generated by the audience, the Neo-Futurists can hardly know where they're headed for more than a few minutes at a time. Of course this unpredictability is part of Too Much Light's appeal, as the unforeseeable dictates of fate structure each show anew. It's risky, but as the philosopher once said, fate favors the well-prepared mind; now in its seventh year, Too Much Light continues to sell out.

With Summer Shorts--two programs of thoughtful one-acts, "Forced Perspective" and "Still Life"--the Neo-Futurists give themselves the opportunity to shape an entire evening. Creating a unified show from several pieces by different writers is a notoriously difficult task, and for the most part the unity here is aesthetic rather than thematic: Summer Shorts is highly formal, at times somber, more often elegantly austere. In almost every piece the actors remain motionless, gesturing minimally, thinking through decidedly complicated material. Not all the pieces succeed, but by and large the sterling cast deliver the kind of intellectual thrills for which the Neo-Futurists are famous.

"Forced Perspective" is the more successful of the two programs. It proceeds from puzzlement to clarity--just the opposite of the way "Still Life" evolves. The evening opens with Harold Pinter's enigmatic Monologue, in which a man seems to be addressing an absent lover, a rival in love, or both. He tells the empty chair next to him that he's enjoying the conversation "quite immeasurably." Next is Gertrude Stein's quintessentially Steinian Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters, a ridiculously overdone murder mystery set in a mind-numbingly bourgeois drawing room where homicide seems the only thing to do. As always, Stein's repetitive wordplay sends the piece into bewildering inanity; the self-appointed detective declares, "Ah ha! There is nobody dead!" The first act of "Forced Perspective" closes with Carl Laszlo's neo-dadaist Let's Eat Hair, in which a man and woman fantasize about eating everything from door hinges to frozen roses to "foam without memories," all the while gorging themselves on enormous heads of lettuce.

These three pieces are progressively more absurd: the crystalline clarity of David Cromer's flawless performance in Monologue (impeccably directed by Brian Shaw) is finally transformed into the hallucinogenic surreality of the ravenous couple in Let's Eat Hair, vividly realized in David Kodeski's stark staging. Let's Eat Hair aptly leads into intermission with the line "Language is tranquilly disintegrating."

By pushing the first act deeper and deeper into playful confusion, the Neo-Futurists create a cunning backdrop for the breathtaking lucidity of Kenneth Barnard's story Preparations, adapted and directed by Diana Slickman. A woman, played by the endlessly intriguing Lusia Strus, is haunted by the story of an elderly Russian wife who, dressed only in her underpants, rushes into a crowded drawing room to attend to her injured husband ten seconds before he dies. The woman wonders if she could do the same, or if modesty would rob her of those irreplaceable seconds. "It is the nature of civilization to put things between people and life," she despairs; but Strus's electrifying performance puts us directly in contact with one of life's most troubling thoughts. Strus speaks with deep conviction, a beacon of passionate sense cutting through the convoluted antisense of the first act.

Preparations would have been a superb conclusion to "Forced Perspective": the final piece, This Is a Play, adds little beyond decoration. Daniel MacIvor's spoof of bad kitchen-sink drama, full of confused symbology, hackneyed plot twists, and actors who "act really hard" during their pauses, is clever but bears little relationship to the rest of the program. Despite superlative performances from the three-person cast, This Is a Play gives us very little to think about. And mulling seems to be the raison d'etre of "Forced Perspective."

In "Still Life," by contrast, the mulling is positively overwhelming. All four plays on this program are directed by Neo-Futurist founder Greg Allen, whose work typically displays a sense of deep introspection. Some of his best pieces in Too Much Light examine the psychological nuances of the simplest human interactions, like deciding whether to trust a friendly, unthreatening man wielding a ball peen hammer. But in "Still Life," that introspection means that the show retreats from clarity into opacity.

"Still Life" opens with perhaps the most successful play of Summer Shorts, Pinter's Victoria Station, about a long-suffering taxi dispatcher who cannot get driver 274 to understand even the simplest of directions. Allen casts himself as the driver opposite Phil Ridarelli's dispatcher, and unsurprisingly the results are stunning. Allen and Ridarelli are two of the most careful, deliberate actors in Chicago, yet each maintains a natural fluidity that makes his precision seem effortless. They're perfect together and perfect for Pinter, whose plays require enormous subtlety and attention to detail. Seated at identical conference tables seemingly miles apart, rarely moving except to lift glasses of water to their lips, Allen and Ridarelli perform Pinter's deceptively simple text with the grace of verbal acrobats.

From there the evening begins to devolve into confusion. Milk, adapted by Allen from Chicagoan Richard House's short story, is about a woman whose son has been murdered; traumatized, she's reluctant to get involved in the life of the young man in the apartment above her dying of AIDS. Slickman gives a measured, intellectually rigorous performance, working her way through the woman's tortured thoughts with the finesse of an archaeologist sifting through centuries of dust. Milk is made up of poignant vignettes and well-chosen details, but like so much contemporary fiction it lacks an organizing principle, and the story feels rather haphazard. Slickman is left without a clear trajectory.

The final two pieces are particularly muddled. Pinter's Family Voices, a cryptic play about a son detailing his hesitant erotic stumblings to his mother, who repeatedly asserts that she never hears from him, is buried under the emotional excess of lead actor Phil Gibbs. And Allen's original Until the Day Breaks and the Shadows Flee Away, an orchestration of texts found in two local cemeteries, is nearly impenetrable. Husband-and-wife team Brian and Stephanie Shaw recite a disappointingly predictable litany of names, dates, biblical quotations, and religious aphorisms while inexplicably staring at glowing television screens. Their relationship to their words and to each other is frustratingly tenuous, and it doesn't develop.

Summer Shorts, which will run as part of the sixth annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival later this month, would be much more effective if pared to a single evening. But some unevenness might remain even then, since the Neo-Futurists are breaking new ground: the simplicity, restraint, and overall stillness of their approach in Summer Shorts stand in marked contrast to the unfettered, raucous atmosphere at Too Much Light. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when the plays in Summer Shorts work, however--after seven years of the sylistically diverse pieces in Too Much Light, the Neo-Futurists have proved how versatile they are.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Diana Slickman.

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