Sydney: Dummy at Large/Scribblings From a Broad | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Sydney: Dummy at Large/Scribblings From a Broad 

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Itinerant Theater Guild

at Victory Gardens Studio

The most interesting moment in Sydney: Dummy at Large occurs at the top of the show, when we see the set for the first time: a tiny (one-third scale or so) hospital room with a single bed. In the bed is a ventriloquist's dummy, hooked up to an IV, his face partly worn away. This is Sydney. In the chair next to him is another ventriloquist's dummy, this one dressed in a military uniform, with the hard, tired, cynical look of someone who has done too much, seen too much, but can't afford to retire just yet.

Unfortunately, the rest of the show never quite lives up to the promise of this opening tableau. Part of the problem is that the stage picture never changes. The dummies, as might be expected, are rooted in place, and so within a few minutes of this hour-long one-act what was at first startling becomes as visually tiresome as a museum diorama. But mostly the play falters because writer/director Stephan Mazurek's story--about a secret agent who runs afoul of his agency when he falls in love with one of the locals he's been sent to spy on--is never as compelling or original as the way Mazurek chooses to tell it.

Mazurek tries to get around the problem of the static stage picture by running a continuous slide show illustrating Sydney's story. The slides add a cinematic element to the play, allowing Mazurek to explore locations that even the most detailed set wouldn't allow. On the downside, the slide show constantly threatens to steal the focus from the onstage action.

Mazurek's slides--all shot in black and white--are populated entirely by dolls, dummies, and toy soldiers. Through the magic of still photography, we see Sydney negotiate his way through the day, from his morning routine in his seedy apartment to his late-morning liaison with a baby doll with a come-hither look to his evening trip to a local disco where G.I. Joes hit on Barbies.

The premise is wonderful, and many of the shots, such as the inclusion of a very drunk Charlie McCarthy in the bar scenes, are quite witty. But the story is clotted with so many details, many of them only momentary visual jokes--Sydney passes out on the roof and awakens to find that some trickster has drawn chalk lines around his body--that the narrative becomes nearly as static as the stage picture. A terrific slide show is no substitute for a rambling, pointless story.

In Scribblings From a Broad, the second play on the bill, Mazurek falls into the same trap. Once again he employs a strikingly original slide show, this time in color, to prop up a less than striking narrative. The story is told by a live actress this time (Loren Crawford), in the form of a letter, or series of letters--it's never clear which--from a depressed sister to her brother. Over the course of the show, we learn the woman is suffering from some excruciating, painful illness and may be dying.

But our compassion for her is limited. The play is so highly fragmented--a reflection, apparently, of her highly disturbed emotional state--that we never feel particularly comfortable with her. And what she says is often so quirky, and from time to time so witty, that it prevents us from holding her too closely. When she's not being funny, she tends to dwell humorlessly on some painful detail of her disease ("They tapped my spine again. . . . The headaches you would not believe") or repeat some off-putting or vicious story: "I met a man who had cut off his penis and handed it to his wife as an act of love. The things people will tell you."

Behind each sound bite, Mazurek flashes a different slide, usually a close-up of some familiar object--a cigarette, a screen, lichen on a rock--though he also tosses in evocative shots of shadows and abstract compositions. Again, it's hard not to wish this visually delightful effect had been used with a better script.

On the whole, Scribblings runs too long. The barrage of short scenes becomes positively numbing after a while. I wish Mazurek had used a lot more comedy, to vary the pace of the show and to make his main character more likable. As the work stands now, she cries alone on the stage. If she had made us laugh a little more often, we'd have cried with her.


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