Parts of Me Function Like a Dream; Bite Me!!!!! | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Parts of Me Function Like a Dream; Bite Me!!!!! 

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Spin 1/2
at the Neo-Futurarium, through April 23

I was in a bookstore some time ago and came across a coffee-table book about Frank Sinatra and his painting. It was a big, glossy affair, with a forward by his daughter Tina and lots of paintings derivative of one 20th-century style or another, from pop to op to abstract expression. I wondered if Sinatra thought his painting a hobby, or something critics and the public might embrace, just as they embraced his music.

Performance art is seductive right now for many performers, maybe the way 20th-century painting seduced Sinatra. But let's face it--not everybody can do it. Sure, it looks easy enough--get a space, develop some material, find a few props. But even if it is an easy, dreamy way to showcase one's ability as an actor, one needs more. Mere appropriation is never enough.

Especially today, when more is expected of performance artists by audiences and critics because we've seen more performance art. Renaissance types like Laurie Anderson and Karen Finley not only use a variety of media well but write texts that can hold their own on the page. Unintended discordant elements, like bad writing, can dismantle an entire show. Consider Parts of Me Function Like a Dream, by Spin 1/2 performance conflux. This surreal, Dada-esque variety show contains some sketches that are very good, funny, cleverly written, and beautifully executed, and some that could be dropped altogether because they are written so badly. Not everyone who performs should write his or her own material.

It's not clear whether or not Spin 1/2 functions as a democracy the way other cooperative performance troupes do (Maestro Subgum comes to mind). But at any rate it's not necessary to include everyone's material in a given evening. There's nothing wrong with developing the writing outside the performance space--because the poor writing here tends to weigh down the entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking writing.

But good writing, good concepts, and good performance have about equal time. Director, writer, and performer Dave Awl has a decidedly wicked, silly, surreal sensibility, fracturing linguistic and social assumptions, rendering absurd everything from his own likes and dislikes--in his "Opening (Parts of Me Function Like a Dream)"--to the traffic sign, "Please Drive Slowly," indicating that children are playing. His approach lies somewhere between the Marx Brothers, conceptualism, and high art, and for this reason, though Spin 1/2 are still gaining their sea legs, their work is well worth seeing.

When the writing does work, it's fresh and original and has a kind of intellectual innocence. These are smart people who haven't lived long enough to become jaded and cynical. Take the strange piece written and performed by Paul Gerard, "Mickey," a monologue that recalls J.D. Salinger's early short stories in its subject matter, urgency, poignancy, and clean style. Gerard recounts an almost forgotten incident from when he was young, naive, and living in a mouse-infested NYU dorm. There is one moment that shocks him, that simultaneously alters his life forever and distances him from his own past, yet he relates it very matter-of-factly.

The final sketch, "Dream Take One," written by Kevin King, is a wonderfully directed and performed ensemble piece that includes all the members of Spin 1/2. It illustrates the moments before a sleeper drops into REM sleep, and includes a superego character (portrayed as a sort of director/producer), a dream character (trying to find his motivation), and a "reality checker" from waking consciousness who seeks to assure that there's an element of reality in the dream. The piece is really brilliant, funny and well worked out in the best tradition of the short skit.

A monologue and black-and-white film "Exercise #17: Underwear," by Tony Rago (no relation), are also seamless. He has a true comedic style; fey, at times subtle but loony facial expressions; and a natural grace of movement that puts him in league with history's best vaudevillians. "As He Is Now" is also well written and well performed, by Bob Laine. Using slides, monologue, and the music of Alex Christoff and Robert Smith, Laine examines the thoughts of a man who has lost his first son to leukemia.

BITE ME!!!!!

Denise LaGrassa
at Center Theater Studio, through May 7

I reviewed Bite Me!!!!! in October, when Denise LaGrassa performed at Cafe Voltaire. Now she's moved to a much nicer, much roomier space, the Center Theater Studio, where she has an eight-week run. In a letter to a Reader editor, she said that this is really a different show, and so I went to find out what indeed might be different.

LaGrassa is a good performer, with a cascade of flaming, curling hair and a face that seems made of Dresden china. And she seems to have absorbed the text more than before, acting less and truly gliding through the material. There is a natural flow to her words and an easy rhythm from one segment to the next. The wonderful lighting design, by Jaymi Lee Smith, emphasizes mood and eases transitions.

But though this version of Bite Me!!!!! has been streamlined, the problems that existed in the text in October still exist today. As the saying goes, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. LaGrassa takes aim at hypocrisy, gossip, shallowness, the disappointing nature of the world (pollution, violence, war, etc), and, in what appears to be a new segment, men--specifically a bachelor who treats women as trophies or decorative objects. But nothing can change the fact that, with the exception of the bachelor segment, the writing needs to be overhauled.

The writing is without a doubt eccentric. A segment called "Shiver Wipper Wappa-Woo" juxtaposes nonsense words with real words in a manner reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." But LaGrassa riddles her work with cliches. If she wants us to take her seriously as a writer, she needs to work on the writing. If she wants us to take her seriously as a performer, that's easy--we do, and she had an extended run at Voltaire to prove it. She's good, and could maybe be great if she gave herself the right material. Her director, Alexia J. Paul, has certainly done her work, and it shows in the way the piece has matured. Even a good director like Paul, however, can't bring to life the cardboard characters created by the writing.

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