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Ramblers

Furious Theatre and Achin' to Be Productions

at TinFish Theatre

Floaters

Great Beast Theater

at the Heartland Studio Theater

By Nick Green

What's depressing about the horde of shows aimed at twentysomethings every year in Chicago is that they all cling to the belief that there's actually something fresh and original about 90s-style disenfranchisement and rebellion. Distrusting corporate America, raging against the machine, sticking it to "the man"--these shows all assume that such concerns are in some way exclusive to the current generation.

But the biggest problem with these plays isn't that the playwrights fail to imagine that past generations might have grappled with the same issues. Nor is it their confusing attempt to challenge a status quo that's ambiguously defined at best. Rather, it's that they're so conflicted about characterizing a generation whose only defining moment so far is MTV hitting the airwaves. Ambivalent about being defined, twentysomethings are recyclers, quoting extensively from popular culture in the hope of establishing an identity. Even our ideas about art, like our ideas about rebelliousness, are retreads.

What's refreshing about Furious Theatre member John Boston's unpretentious Ramblers is that it doesn't purport to speak for an entire generation; instead it revolves around a group of twentysomethings who gather in a high school buddy's basement to drink beer, smoke pot, and otherwise numb themselves to the pressures of the working world. These emotionally detached characters wouldn't dream of discussing current events or social ills--they're too busy staring vacantly at a big-screen TV and arguing the merits of porn movies. The clever but uncredited set design even includes an aquarium the characters use as a receptacle for trash, tossing in lit cigarettes.

Moreover, Ramblers is remarkably self-conscious about pop culture's stranglehold on the twentysomething generation. The play's protagonist, a filmmaker turned high school teacher named Paul Bosley, jokes that a relationship with one of his students might land him on "Pedophile Candid Camera." Oafish Hoss bets that he can devour 30 hot dogs in an hour, and his friends can't help but make the inevitable Cool Hand Luke comparison. And in perhaps the play's most blatant example of referencing, druggie Bev attributes his knowledge of shooting heroin to Trainspotting: "Movies, man. They teach you everything you need to know."

Other playwrights might congratulate a middle-class college grad who keeps repeating "You've got to rage against the dying of the light" as a personal mantra. Boston doesn't imply it's anything but laughable. His slackers and daydreamers pepper their speech with snippets of movie dialogue and constantly comment on how frequently life imitates art. But Boston doesn't let the script's quotes and references hang in the air like grandiloquent statements on life or morality. His characters' pathetic attempts to assert their individuality are underscored by a healthy sense of irony.

Ramblers doesn't hammer you over the head with messages or metaphors; when Bosley fails to weigh the moral consequences of dating his 17-year-old student, it quietly speaks volumes about his generation's selfishness. But at two and a half hours, the play is about an hour too long. And especially during the second act Boston tends to get caught up in the Hollywood mentality he spends so much time poking fun at: a plot development in which a character must come to grips with his father's untimely death seems to have been tacked on solely for closure.

But despite the play's few maudlin elements, Boston demonstrates a talent for quick quips and memorable one-liners. And thanks to the cast's dead-on timing, sharp performances, and their ironic distance from the characters--which echoes the playwright's--it's not hard to empathize with these slackers. Which is a pretty rare thing in plays of this genre.

In theory, at least, Mark Young's Floaters takes a much stronger approach: what better way to capture a fragmented, highly individualistic generation than in unconnected monologues? But Young doesn't have enough distance from his subjects to be analytical about them, and as a result there's too little contrast among his nine monologues. One character reveals the details of a nasty breakup; another complains about selling out and going to law school; yet another argues that playing video games is a subversive activity. But in the end their fears and anxieties are more or less the same. And the characters are too self-aggrandizing to make the life-shaking changes they constantly fantasize about, a fact of which Young seems woefully unaware.

"God isn't the enemy--it's image...and advertising," remarks suburban graffiti artist Tim in the play's opener. Young clearly intends this to express his character's extreme self-awareness and individuality. Yet Floaters inadvertently embraces contemporary culture's packaging and categorizing and labeling of twentysomethings: the monologues sound like prefab sound bites and ad slogans--"You have to have realistic expectations," and "The thing about underground water is it flows."

That problem is exacerbated by Mary Chase and Laurie Crowe's pretentious, self-important staging. Despite the spray-painted phrase "I'm alive" gracing the stage, the actors recite Young's hollow statements like animatronic puppets, inserting frequent pauses for dramatic effect. For the most part they don't even make eye contact with the audience. Whether it's ineptitude or a conscious choice, that fact alone makes empathizing with their characters incredibly difficult if not impossible.

Floaters lacks direction and evolution: there's no sense of forward movement within individual monologues or over the play as a whole. Nor is there any sense of empowerment. At least the characters in Ramblers do more than bitch about how traumatic and stressful their insignificant problems are. Still, Young deserves some credit for his apt title--as promised, Floaters goes nowhere.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ramblers theater still by Josh Owens; floaters uncredited photo.

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