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The Planets

Roadworks Productions

at Bailiwick Arts Center

By Adam Langer

Max Bialystock: (proposing a toast) To failure!

Wino in bar: Thank you; you're very kind.

--Mel Brooks's The Producers

I've always had a soft spot for the noble failure, the production that crashes and burns in the glorious self-annihilation of hubris. There's something inspiring about watching artists attempt to stretch beyond their capabilities. Which is why I've always preferred Leonard Bernstein's Candide to his West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures to his Into the Woods, Helmut Jahn's James R. Thompson Building to his Xerox Building. It's also why people seldom ask me for video recommendations anymore, having been persuaded to see Contempt, Zabriskie Point, F for Fake, Until the End of the World, and Ishtar.

This is not to say that every big-budget stage or screen disaster is worthy of attention, no matter how many think pieces have been written about Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero, or to suggest that everyone demand Howard the Duck from Blockbuster or petition Steppenwolf to revive Moose Murders. It's merely to recall that though artists may fall far below their intended heights they may be failing at a level far above that at which others have succeeded. I'd be one of the last people to say that Roadworks' adaptation of James Finney Boylan's The Planets is successful, but for all its flaws and frustrations, I'd take it any day over Steppenwolf's traditionally well-crafted adaptations of The Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying.

The quality of The Planets fluctuates wildly: it contains two of the best performances I've seen this year and two of the worst. Sometimes it produces stunning imagery; sometimes it's just a shocking mess. It features moments of unsurpassed beauty and of incomparable pretension. It's thrilling and stultifying, brilliant and moronic. At times it's hilarious; at others, jaw-droppingly humorless. In short, it represents some of the very reasons we go to theater in the first place: to be challenged, to argue, to reflect, to storm down Belmont Avenue debating whether we've seen a brilliant gem or a sack of shit. Hell, Roadworks must be doing something right, given the message about the play I found on my answering machine from a member of the Chicago theater community who shall remain nameless: "Heard you saw that Planets thing. You better pan it."

It's somewhat mystifying that adapter-director Paul Edwards chose to bring Boylan's S.J. Perelman-on-acid work to the stage at all. Boylan's fantastic array of characters includes a white-collar amateur ventriloquist; a bald, beer-swilling nudist; a verbally challenged pianist; a donkey-riding, helium-sucking hardware-store robber and his gun-toting mother; an ultraintelligent dog; and a pathetic amateur sky diver whose faulty parachute triggers an indescribably loony series of interactions among the aforementioned characters and sundry others. The Planets doesn't seem to have a traditional structure, leaping from incident to incident and character to character. And Boylan's hysterical prose, with its insane, hilarious logic, and his almost random plotting, with its gleeful spasms of distressingly arbitrary cruelty, don't seem inherently stageworthy.

Appreciating Edwards's nearly futile effort to turn Boylan's episodic fun-house ride into a play depends largely on whether you can survive the first 20 or so excruciating minutes, which set off warning bells left and right, suggesting you may well be in for Springtime for Hitler. Using Boylan's young heavy-metal fiend Demmie as a sort of satanic Our Town stage manager, Edwards incorporates as much of Boylan's prose as possible in superfluous narration, delivered in patronizing children's-story-theater fashion by Amanda Weier, who spends most of her time onstage clomping around like a cross between Gene Simmons and Joan Jett or grinning like a ninny while giving focus to other performers. The flat delivery and irritatingly stylized explanations of patently obvious activities ("Pantomime representing the opening and closing of a car door") smack of an inability to dramatize Boylan's work, cloaked in a winking condescension, which renders parachutist Edith Schmertz's tragic fall from the heavens almost completely inconsequential.

Edwards never entirely abandons the story-theater approach, but thankfully he does relegate it to the background from time to time, and when he does the play sparkles. The bizarre sadomasochistic relationship that develops between bald, chug-a-lugging nudist office temp and part-time mime Judith Lenahan and failed ventriloquist banker Denton Wilkins is exquisitely rendered in delightful performances by Lance Baker and Michele Graff. Without the needless intrusions of narrator Demmie, the pathos and wonderfully twisted humor of Boylan's writing are able to emerge: whenever Graff and Baker are onstage, we're transported from doggerel to poetry.

Like lumbering power hitter Dave Kingman, this production can only strike out or smack a home run onto Waveland. A sky-diving sequence is cleverly performed, while a scene of slo-mo chaos under strobe light looks like an intro-to-theater classroom exercise. Some difficult aspects of Boylan's novel are rendered with comparative ease--such as an ill-fated escape via helium balloons--and some relatively simple incidents, such as a hostage situation between Lenahan and a dipsomaniacal former English teacher, are stiff and unconvincing.

This is the furthest thing from traditional well-crafted theater you can imagine. It's messy, pompous, risky, overdone, and insanely intricate. But if it ultimately fails to connect the dots in Boylan's psychedelic dot-to-dot story, it's because it has too many ideas, not too few. Unlike some previous Roadworks productions, which seemed to substitute theatrical polish for invention or thoughtfulness, this one sacrifices training to ambitious chaos. It commands attention even when it's bugging the living hell out of us. And at a time when success seems to be measured by fulfilled expectations rather than goals surpassed or subverted, we need more failures like this one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Phil M. Kohlmetz.

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