The Progeny Chronicles/The Fragmented Veins of Staci and Cayce | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Progeny Chronicles/The Fragmented Veins of Staci and Cayce 

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THE PROGENY CHRONICLES

KKT Productions

at Red Bones Theatre

THE FRAGMENTED VEINS OF STACI AND CAYCE

Hope and Nonthings and

KKT Productions

at Red Bones Theatre

The title character of Scott Sandoe's Texanna Rearranges the Planets and Saves Your Family From the Gates of Hell--one-half of "The Progeny Chronicles"--is a housewife and mother turned author. Her children didn't object when she first took up writing, finding it in their own interests to keep her busy and out of the way. Twelve years later, however, Texanna's advice books have spawned a million-dollar industry encompassing not only book sales but lecture tours, monogrammed souvenirs, and an exercise video. Of course, not all of Texanna's history conforms to her "mother knows best" image. She claims her husband is deceased, but he's actually in prison. Her estranged older son, Peter, is a pornographic film star. Her slavishly devoted younger son, Gabriel, is her manager and personal lackey. And her spoiled daughter, Maggie, is a bored mall rat. Peter says that his mother beat him, Gabriel says that his mother neglected him, Maggie says that her mother is smothering her. None of these accusations bothers Texanna, whose money-making manifesto to moms is firmly based on the principles of self-deception, denial, selective memory, and the abandonment of such outmoded maternal sentiments as unconditional love and consideration for others.

The protagonist of Sandoe's Half-Assed Teenage Suicide Attempts is Cynthia Von Virtue, whose wealthy father has committed her to Fiona Fairweather's Home for Disturbed Teenagers after an alleged suicide attempt-cum-matricide (Cynthia jumped from a penthouse window and landed on her mother, who was killed instantly). At first Cynthia rejects the notion that her beloved father could have hospitalized her and expresses horror at the company she's to keep. Dysmal imagines himself to be a dog and may be a rapist. Zelda has a multiple-personality disorder, turning into such great heroines of literature as Scarlett O'Hara, Blanche DuBois, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Luke is "not a transvestite," he says. "I have an accessorizing disorder." He frequently substitutes for the chief physician at the home. Fiona is a doting headmistress whose cheerful nurturance conceals a sadistic streak ("I will not hesitate to soak you with the hose," she tells a rebellious Cynthia. "And if that doesn't work I'll call the fire department, and their hoses hurt"). After six months in a straitjacket surrounded by the tender mercies of these companions, however, Cynthia becomes so enamored of her new society that she's reluctant to leave them, even after her arms--now atrophied to the point of uselessness--are freed from their restraints.

Comedic treatment of serious subjects is not new--indeed, it's the basis of virtually all post-Norman Lear television comedy. But if the contrasting attitudes are not carefully integrated, they tend to cancel each other out. Playwright Sandoe and director Martin de Maat both seem competent, but apparently they have not made up their minds about the response they want these plays, presented by KKT Productions, to invoke. Texanna's children have some genuine grievances, but their complaints are played so cute and cartoonishly that we can't take them seriously. "Honestly, children do exaggerate so, don't they?" laughs Texanna, and because her children are so exaggerated, we almost believe her. After all, in a cartoon nobody ever really gets hurt.

Besides, the slapstick antics given them by de Maat and fight coach Danny Robles divert our attention so completely from Texanna's subversive message that any potential irony is lost. Dysmal's past is pretty horrific--we're told that his father castrated him with an ax when he was 14--but he's so adorable, scrabbling about under beds and posing atop an overturned chair like Snoopy on his doghouse, that the grimness of his condition is washed away in a tide of winsomeness. Cynthia's eventual assimilation into this twisted "family" could be viewed as a demonstration of cult brainwashing, and her helplessly dangling arms as a metaphor for prophylactic mutilation (lobotomies, for example), if it weren't for the clutter of standard loony-bin gags. And the abrupt reunion of Texanna and her offspring in a welter of cosmological poetry and group hugs appears to have been grafted on from another play.

The evening has a certain entertainment value. The KKT actors display masterful comic timing and athletic grace (in particular Kyle Storjohann, who resembles a young Dick Van Dyke), and de Maat's inventive staging keeps the action brisk and visually stimulating. There are indications, however, that at one time "The Progeny Chronicles" may have been intended to give the audience more than just an opportunity to ridicule the pain of others.

Among the few staples of young writers everywhere are the "Black Coffee at 4 AM," the "Fuck You, Corporate Square," and the "Writer's Block" pieces. The Fragmented Veins of Staci and Cayce (no connection to the famous clairvoyant) is Ian Pierce's contribution to the latter genre. It tells the story of Staci Cayce, a selfish, ill-mannered Steinbeck wannabe whose frustration at his lack of creativity drives him to drink at a sleazy corner bar. "As a writer," he announces pompously, slugging down the Wild Turkey, "I must put myself into circumstances where I meet with potential characters." One of these is Lucy, who might be his muse but whose insight is so keen ("Your head is smaller than the rest of the world. Your stories have outgrown you") that she must be destroyed. Staci is also accompanied on his journey to comeuppance by Justin Cayce, who claims to be an actor and proceeds to demonstrate it by simultaneously playing scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Death of a Salesman, and Waiting for Godot. A bevy of Staci's characters also tumble in and out of the action, as randomly as paint flaking off the ceiling.

Though the ten actors--mostly students from Columbia College, I'm told--who play the 28 characters in Fragmented Veins are enthusiastic and occasionally inspired, Pierce has strung his narrative together so loosely, as have directors Mark A. Fossen and John R. Pierson, that any plot is obscured until the last 20 minutes or so. Then we finally get a glimpse of the play this could have been, before it developed an accessorizing disorder.

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