Method to Madness Festival | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Method to Madness Festival 

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By Laura Molzahn

The common denominator of the multidisciplinary Method to Madness Festival seems to be the size of its pieces: they're small. Link's Hall has never been a place for giant works, but the six acts on the first program, whose elements ranged from puppetry to music to film to performance, were exceptionally tiny. The whole bunch didn't take much more than an hour. Even the opera lasted all of ten minutes.

That's not surprising given the DIY aesthetic of the fest, curated by Kate Sheehy. (Skill-sharing workshops, running throughout the month, tackle such subjects as how to do toy theater or tune up your bike.) Sheehy clearly went after artists with little or no interest in expensive technology or stage accoutrements—artists who in fact vehemently oppose that way of making art. The only musical act in the first show, the two-man band Roth Mobot, make a big point of using discarded equipment to produce their electronic music.

That element of self-congratulation isn't particularly attractive, or relevant: you can use all the recycled materials in the world and still not produce good art. But good, thrifty small-scale works can make a point by countering the trend in our culture toward the huge and expensive—Broadway musicals, big-budget movies, TV series.

Reality shows try to give the illusion that they're intimate—and they are relatively inexpensive to produce. Still, they're demographed and massaged and managed down to the smallest detail even as they pretend to let us in on what the lives of models, chefs, and designers are really like. Sheehy has tried to give this festival a similar angle: she says in a program note that it offers "a behind-the-scenes exploration of the catalogs, regimen, recipes, and obsessions that make [artists] go."

Well, not really. Or not on the first program anyway. (The lineup changes every week; some works are repeated but most are not.) The uneven opening show featured some gems and some ho-hum efforts. Only one work, Jessica Hudson's ingenious solo performance Attempts at Flight (which repeats on program four, January 25-27), seemed a thoughtful meditation on the artist's process. Hudson says it was inspired by the life of aeronaut Alberto Santos-Dumont, but you don't really need to know that. What comes through loud and clear is the exhilaration and difficulty of taking wing, which I took to be a metaphor for the exhilaration and difficulty of producing art that soars. Unified in theme yet varied in its elements, Attempts at Flight grabs your attention from the moment Hudson thrusts her upper body out the Link's Hall projection window, puts goggles on, and flaps her arms. A gifted physical comedian, she never speaks, but she makes the simple act of pulling paper cutouts of planes and balloons on a clothesline mesmerizing. And she adds shading to a piece that might otherwise have seemed overly cute with projections of fighter jets, dead birds, and bombed buildings.

Of the two films on the program, one was explicitly about artists: Neil Bhaerman and Michael Maraden's Puppets, a short documentary featuring interviews with puppeteers about what they do and why. It's mildly interesting but too brief to offer much insight into the craft. (Amateurish, forgettable efforts are the dark side of DIY.) The other film, Max Marsden's Boxcartoon, is an exquisite-corpse collaboration between Marsden and three animators. It features the usual playful morphing of animation, but since we have no idea how the film was put together or whose contributions are whose, it just looks like an animated film with some barely perceptible variations in style. In fact neither film—perhaps because there was no live component or because film is by nature finished and immutable—had much impact in this context.

Emily Carter's solo puppetry performance Boy, Girl, and the Modern Baby (Marsden's and Carter's works also repeat January 25-27) offered an intriguing mix of the concrete and the inchoate. What I saw onstage didn't seem to match the title or description in the program: nothing about the piece suggested the sci-fi show or ad campaign mentioned, and no soundscape or animated commercials were evident. Instead Carter crept forward from upstage, pushing across the floor a contraption designed to manipulate a phalanx of rudimentary puppets, which bowed and swayed in unison as they "walked" toward us. Slightly threatening and creepy, their movement was accompanied by a text about numerology delivered by several voices at once, which both suggested people praying and made it difficult to tell what they were saying. At the end, though, I caught a phrase that went something like, We prefer snails to slugs because we don't have to watch what's inside the shell. Apparently a meditation on the human and the nonhuman, the creepy inside and the simple outside, Carter's work was clunky but suggestive.

By far the most finished piece was the opera, Laika's Coffin, directed by Frank Maugeri and written by Seth Bockley, both of Redmoon. Also the largest piece, it featured a dozen experienced singers, performers, and puppeteers; Kevin O'Donnell's brief arias efficiently delivered the story. Care seems to have been lavished on this work, which is about Laika, the dog that in 1957 became the first living creature launched into space. The intricate puppetry consists of three boxes that open and unfold to reveal different scenes: a starry sky, a Moscow street. Puppets—a girl, a dog, a space capsule—mime the action. The creators have taken some liberties with the story (Laika was reportedly a stray, but here she has an owner, the girl, who loves her). That makes Laika's Coffin a bit precious: highly polished miniatures can seem merely cunning, especially if the context is sentimental. But I have to admit that the dog's whimpering as it met its fate at the end, while the chorus sang "I have seen what no one has seen," was affecting. Coming at the end of the program, Laika's Coffin was like dessert, a little cake topping off this potluck evening of homemade dishes.v

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