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The Zero Room 

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Last weekend the Chicago Actor's Ensemble opened its new late-night performance series, The Zero Room, in a tiny black room on the fifth floor of the Preston Bradley Community Center. The "Zero Room" is a fictional performance cabaret, and every Saturday night CAE members intend to create, according to press material, "a total performance environment featuring performance, poetry, art, video and music in a continuously changing multi-media format." The Zero Room's opening night proved a disorganized, uninspired disaster: it started a half-hour late and showcased a series of momentumless skits performed in oppressive heat while an annoying waiter kept wandering around offering people mashed potatoes. When intermission was announced at 12:30 and I realized that I'd seen everyone listed on the program, I decided to leave before my frustration grew into real anger.

This project was just not ready to go. Everything was ill prepared and slipshod, an evening full of half-gestures and unclear choices. The Zero Room is supposedly home to a variety of burned-out artists, from the continuously drunk and decidedly untalented master of ceremonies, Al Valvolina-Colin, to a pretentious video maker named Shawn Durr, to a pair of guitar-strumming hippie leftovers called the Doubleknit Underground. But the real performers--who are not credited in the program--don't have the skill or insight to pull off successful parody. And uncertainty about what is and what is not a satirical target can make an audience extremely uncomfortable.

The Doubleknit Underground, for example, might be making fun of folky pop musicians, or they might sincerely believe that their songs are good. The way in which the band is presented--its name and disheveled appearance, and the fact it was "discovered" by Mandy Warhole, who spends the evening painting over a cheesy landscape painting behind a scrim--indicates that the thing is a spoof. But their songs have no parodic vitality. They're simply flat, made up of about three chords each and featuring such lackluster lyrics as: "I'm looking for you / I'm looking for me / Now that we've found each other / What will it be?" The two performers play without either enthusiasm or irony.

Durr's overlong video, Shawn's World, suffers from a similar flaw. Durr is supposed to be the ultimate self-centered artist, and his video seems to be a send-up of those obscure, artsy videos that pop up on the gallery circuit from time to time. But because Durr has little skill as a video maker or a satirist, he relies for his humor on cheap, forced "weirdness"--odd juxtapositions of incongruous elements, and pokerfaced people doing nonsensical things. These are the most superficial elements in a lot of experimental video, and clearly Durr hasn't looked much more deeply into the art form. But to create a successful parody, one must understand and appreciate the target, not just make fun of it as stupid, as something that requires no thought. Durr's video is fundamentally mean-spirited, making it unpleasant to watch.

Worse, much of the humor in The Zero Room is based on dirty words, embarrassment about sex, or a combination of the two. Crud, the bouncer, introduces the evening by showing us his penis-shaped squirt gun--the mere presentation of the object is expected to elicit laughter. Molly McNett, a guitar-playing singer who seems meant to look like a sorority girl, sings two "scandalous," puerile songs: "Sleazy bimbos have all the fun / I wish I were one," and "Shit is quite a funny little word / It's better than Poo, crap, or turd." Emcee Valvolina-Colin even farts once for a laugh. And none of this humor is quite bad enough to be self-consciously bad. These performers never seem to laugh at themselves, never put their tongues in their cheeks.

Above all, the CAE appear simply desperate, trying to pull off a "total performance environment" without interesting ideas or clever performers. The Zero Room needs to be rethought from the ground up.


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