Just Wait Till Next Year | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Just Wait Till Next Year 

The best thing about the Objects in Motion Festival is its potential.

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Objects in Motion The Building Stage

Blake Montgomery once made a coat the star of a show. At the beginning of his 2006 adaptation of Moby Dick, a heavy black overcoat descended from the ceiling on a wire. Whichever actor wore the coat became Captain Ahab, weighed down as though the captain's debilitating gloom were sewn into the fabric. In the play's stunning final moment, as the master of the Pequod was ripped from his ship and lashed to the great white whale, the coat flew back to the ceiling. It was a graceful and terrifying coup de theatre. The mythic captain's anarchic spirit seemed to hover over the stage, waiting patiently against the rafters for the next unsuspecting group of actors.

Montgomery knows how to bring an object to life. Now he's giving other theater artists a chance to do the same. Comprising three programs of object-based performance, Montgomery's Objects in Motion Festival brings together puppeteers, choreographers, directors, actors, and performance artists who put stuff first—floor lamps, bicycles, toys, tent spikes, puppets, more puppets, lightbulbs, crumpled paper, poker chips, drawings, and mud.

In the usual way of festivals, each of the programs is scattershot, and—except in the "Intimate Program," featuring small-scale puppet pieces the audience gathers around to see—with many long set changes between acts, forward momentum is in short supply. If Objects in Motion teaches anything, it's that people can craft all kinds of ingenious, beautiful things without knowing how to build a performance out of them.

The pieces range in length from 3 to 30 minutes, and their relative success spans a broad spectrum. Where Montgomery drew on Melville's epic narrative to imbue an overcoat with significance, some festival participants seem content simply to trot out their junk and have us look at it for a bit. As Time Goes By—part of the "Intimate Program"—consists of Allison Daniel building up and knocking down small mounds of mud for five minutes. Others tie their stuff to indulgent, rambling texts. In Niagara, the performance trio B-LO go on at length about the exploitation of Native Americans and Niagara Falls while exhibiting various figurines and snapping digital photographs of them—all to make obvious points. Still others seem to have been booked into the wrong festival entirely. The members of the Rough House attempt to tell a story using marionettes of oversize mice—but their puppetry skills are limited to bouncing the critters lifelessly up and down, as though someone had handed them the puppets five minutes before the show.

Suffering though pieces like these makes the genuine artistry of puppeteer Joe Mazza all the more engaging. In The Hyperbolist, he mounts a metal stepladder and manipulates a small, faceless hand puppet that looks like a heap of linen with a rock mounted on top. Adopting the affected diction of a Victorian elocutionist, Mazza turns the puppet into a grotesque parody of a faithless yet godlike cynic who sends his assistant—a rag on a stick—to the world below, to find one example of true love. When the rag ends up crucified, the hyperbolist, in one of the silliest theatrical moments in recent memory, unleashes a stentorian—not to say, hyperbolic—lament: "Come in, Fate! I wasn't expecting you! I would have stewed more woe!" Mazza works his puppets with sublime subtlety, each tiny movement conveying recognizable emotion and psychology—a particularly impressive feat given the ridiculous text and the diminutive scale of the puppets.

Chantal Calato makes no attempt to bring her stick puppets to life, yet the sly hokum she concocts in The Great Blondin makes for a quaint, engaging performance. She tells the story of Jean Francois Gravelot—aka the Great Blondin, the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope—by stringing twine between two wooden barrels and moving a little man on a stick across it. With each successive crossing she reveals an "Applause" sign in a more ridiculous place: on the lining of her coat, under a drinking glass, across her ass. For all her cheap shtick, Calato never belittles her subject, and her obvious admiration for Gravelot's daring and originality gives the piece emotional depth.

Perhaps the most important entry in the festival is Plasticene's Light Cycle, since it marks that innovative company's return to Chicago after an absence of three years. Like the best of Plasticene's work, Light Cycle is less concerned with overt content than with an orchestrated flow of tasks and images. Three performers spend 15 minutes flinging around five floor lamps, reading numerous notes, and riding a creaky old bicycle. Director Dexter Bullard has a keen ear for rhythm and a genius for building inexplicable suspense, talents that give this curious experiment a surreal allure. Hopefully this promising start will grow into a full-length piece.

The festival's other promising start is Montgomery's own Le Ballet des Objets, in which eight women move various objects—inflatable plastic balls, hula hoops, illuminated bicycle reflectors—through the air, making them seem to dance. Although the piece is twice as long as it needs to be and lacks visual precision, it offers a few simple, arresting images. Toward the end, eight plastic balls with blue, swirling designs on them gently undulate against the seeming abyss of a dark stage—eight earths, lost in space and huddling together for comfort.

The festival's true standout is Sid Yiddish's Suite for Furby on Shofar in D Minor, an inspired bit of effrontery. Dressed in a traditional Muslim tunic and kufi, Yiddish arranges 11 Furbys on a table. As the little toy robots start talking to each other, he circles them several times while playing various instruments: an electronic keyboard, a child's xylophone, a shofar, a slide whistle. Offstage a guitar, cello, and snare trio noodle away, although Yiddish occasionally cuts them off to lament that the Furbys aren't talking as much as he'd like. Yiddish presents an arresting figure, and his ad hoc musical composition would make Fluxus provocateur George Maciunas proud.

In his curtain speeches before each program, Montgomery called this the first Objects in Motion festival. If he really wants to make it a viable annual event, he may need to scale it back and curate it more carefully. As things stand, he's got one evening's worth of presentable work scattered across three overlong programs. But the beauty, humor, and astuteness of the strongest pieces justify giving the festival another shot next year.v

Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com. And for more on theater, visit our Onstage blog.

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