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THE ROOT OF CHAOS

Theatre of Chaos

at Mary-Arrchie Theatre

The Root of Chaos, the latest late-night offering at Uptown's Mary-Arrchie Theatre, is either deeply layered satire or utterly sophomoric humor: you be the judge. I came away thinking it had real substance, but then again the Theatre of Chaos is one of those young, really hip groups so smart and funny I may have been fooled.

On the side of deepness, there's plenty of cynicism. And there's some biting criticism of the American family. There's also a nicely played moral lesson about letting fear kill our spirits.

But then there's the ridiculous--and very funny--stuff. Like Doublemint, the teenage daughter, not so subtly practicing blow jobs on a soda bottle at the dinner table. And Joe Cernikowski, the family patriarch, being excessively courteous about disrupting the police chief's dinner when he calls to get an ambulance for his wife, Wilma, who's just been sucked into a fiery fissure in the basement.

Playwright Douglas Soderberg has created an absurd alter reality, but he's not just spoofing the everyday. The Cernikowski family is as flat and familiar as anything on a sitcom, but their story never gets as smug as the usual TV-derived satire. These characters--the exasperated Wilma, the nebbish son, the pheromone-mad daughter, and the father in constant denial--are remarkably frail. They banter and poke at each other--and at us--but their smirks never quite cover the pain. They're scared out of their wits that the world will fail them. Even as they strike their clever poses, they're terrified of getting hurt, and of being alone.

The Root of Chaos takes place in Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground fire has been raging out of control for years. The town's residents have come to accept the gaseous conditions, the mysterious "cancer," the poison alerts, the temperature fluctuations. In the meantime, authorities are exploring ways of dousing the fire, or maybe they'll just move the entire town. One method--burnout--would actually speed up the burning by fanning the flames in the hope that the fire will exhaust its fuel supply and die out.

In the Cernikowski home, Wilma has taken it upon herself to make daily readings of the inferno's effects. She measures how much the house has sunk, the levels of carbon monoxide, and the increasing heat. She's preoccupied and committed. Joe, who's a surveyor practically unemployed in this hellhole town, strives to be the perfect father and hold the family together in spite of his utter helplessness. In a strange way, they're archetypal parents. Wilma's wise in all the practical arts of survival, cooking and measuring, always in some sort of preparation for flight from disaster. Joe, the dreamer, tells the family fables and contrives to keep up the appearance that everything is all right, no matter how hot it gets or how much the children obviously already know.

These two are so used to their roles that they have no way out of them, no way to grow beyond them. But Doublemint and Skeeter, her nine-year-old brother, change dramatically during The Root of Chaos. Doublemint, who seems both selfish and reckless at first, becomes nurturing and much too aware of her own mortality by the end. Skeeter, whom Joe claims to be protecting with his denial, reveals a wisdom that exceeds his youth.

All this drama occurs within a framework of ridiculous dialogue and absurd posturings. This juxtaposition of material and attitude is disturbing as hell, but I suspect that's the playwright's intention. The first half of The Root of Chaos is mostly comedic setup, and much of it seems familiar territory. It feels like another Saturday Night Live imitation. But by the second half, Soderberg's darkness has come to the fore. Here the characters become vulnerable and the play becomes weirdly nihilistic.

If the end itself, with its cleanly efficient violence, seems a bit too obvious, it may be simply because Soderberg's perverse reasoning is so convincing. It's not so much that the end is predictable, but rather that within the laws of Soderberg's universe all that happens is logical.

To heighten Soderberg's madness, director Liz Cruger has found an unusual balance in her approach--between silly, broad humor and uncanny sensitivity. The actors travel back and forth between these extremes effortlessly. Perhaps the best example is Peter Kaestner as Skeeter, who can turn on a dime from a marvelously wrought monologue on fear of the afterlife to a hilarious death scene that would have made Buster Keaton proud. Also of note is Kristine Hipps, whose Wilma exhibits wonderfully subtle nuances of spiritual frustration from the start.

The Root of Chaos isn't for everyone. It may be too cute for some and too dark for others. The longer I've thought about it, though, the more I've liked it. And the thinking itself's a good sign.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.

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