Jack, or the Submission/Charlie the Chicken | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Jack, or the Submission/Charlie the Chicken 

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JACK, OR THE SUBMISSION

Shattered Globe Theatre
at the Project

Back in the 50s, before the advent of death by TV, it seemed as if theater had a future. They called it the Theater of the Absurd--a smart, anarchistic, philosophically cynical, largely European sort of thing, though a few Americans, like Edward Albee, had a little success with it too. Eugene Ionesco emerged as the rare absurdist with a wonderfully silly, accessible sense of humor. Even at his darkest he's playful compared to the tubercular Beckett, the menacing Pinter, or the relentlessly political Frisch. Still, it's a serious matter to bungle an Ionesco play.

Trampled beneath this production is the story of Jack, a recalcitrant young man who is nagged and vilified by his family until he claims that he adores hash brown potatoes: a sign of great personal promise and cause for family jubilation. This occasion prompts Jack's immediate betrothal to a young woman he's never seen, Roberta, who was selected by his parents. The hash browns were one thing, but this marriage is just too much, and Jack tries to worm out of it. His family doesn't break him, but his fiancee offers him horses, understanding, and a basement where each and every thing is called "cat," making conversation so much easier. Is it any wonder Jack submits?

Maybe this isn't the lightest of Ionesco's comedies, but it has some great head-banging nonsequiturs and an assassin's appreciation of the family unit. It's a slick piece of work that almost plays itself. Unless of course the cast are directed to shout their lines, flail their arms, and when all else fails stand on a folding chair. In a small house, with an audience of seven, such overkill admits failure at the onset. Jack, or the Submission isn't a delicate subtlety, but it still requires some imagination.

No imagination is found among the supernumeraries--the parents, grandparents, sister, and in-laws--all too much of a bad thing. John David (Jack), the only person not in whiteface, compensates with a performance of uncommon facial paralysis. At least he can be thanked for his restraint. Much out of place is Karen Hammer (Roberta), who appears to have given her part some work, play, and a piece of herself. What's a decent actor doing in a show like this?

One playwright, one actor, nine altogether onstage, and only seven in the audience. It was a late show, 10:15 curtain, so actors lucky enough to be in other productions could double as an audience when they got off. Even so the proportions were unhealthy. The 20th century was staggering to an end. By 11:15 the Theater of the Absurd was dead, but the Theater of Cruelty carried on. Next door the bar was crowded.

CHARLIE THE CHICKEN

Profiles Performance Ensemble
at Red Bones Theatre

If a chicken could talk, would it have anything to say? Jonathan Levy's not-so-Kafkaesque, behind- the-scenes story of a Hungarian carnival performer and his amazing chicken addresses this poultry concern. Oh happy day.

OK. Man finds and raises a prodigy chicken, actually a rooster, and develops an act wherein the chicken adds, subtracts, dances, and answers Password-type questions with responses that sound like "cluck" (i.e. clerk, clock, cloak). Backstage it's revealed that the chicken, Charlie, is "transistorized," allowing him to whine about working conditions and plead for his freedom in English. And so the theme of the master-slave relationship is vaguely elaborated with the depth and clarity of an unfiltered baby pool. Not exactly The Night Porter.

Sure, any play can appeal for a deeper dissection. But political issues--free-range chickens, Eastern European turmoil--are outside this production's context. Freudian criticism is also counterindicated, despite a few taunting free associations: chicken, rooster, cock, schlong, Charlie the Tuna? Why does the Hungarian only choke his chicken in private? I don't know. Even if you could squeeze a couple of double entendres out of this show, your date would still be pissed off.

Kenny Mitten portrays Horvath, the cock wrangler, with a part-time, supposedly Hungarian accent: sweating and pronouncing his self-conscious half hour upon the stage, he's ironically unaware that his fly is open the entire time. More compelling, by default, is Guy Massey as Charlie, who transforms a talky, boring role into a fairly demanding aerobic workout. Karen Woditsch hurls up a couple of poorly digested, irrelevant walk-ons as a stripper and an autograph hound.

This show is bad, but not ambitiously bad. The only remarkable thing about Charlie the Chicken is that it can make a half hour seem eternal. It's exhausting watching performers burst with unfocused energy, as if they were damn well going to bludgeon this play to life. I felt drained, like I'd spent an evening baby-sitting hyperglycemic children. But as I dragged myself to the door, the rest of the modest audience just sat there wearing these incredibly ambiguous, guarded expressions. I'd seen audiences like this before hanging out after plays like this. Friends and family of the cast usually, paying their respects. The real show was about to begin.

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