Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ladies Night

Chicago prides itself on its theater scene and I used to pride myself as a theater-goer. Over the years, we subscribed alternately to the Court, the Goodman and Lookingglass. Took in the occasional Steppenwolf show (rarely a pricey mainstage, but Steppenwolf nonetheless) and supported various smaller companies like Shattered Globe, packed into a cramped space with maybe 30 other audience members, nearly everyone within spitting distance of the actors. Some of these outings were more memorable than others--a musical, lesbian spoof of Nancy Drew springs to mind--but we always left feeling we'd participated in some worthwhile cause vs. simply lapping up the latest blockbuster movie. I suppose this is what Prius owners feel like when they pull up next to a Hummer.

And then we just stopped. Partly because we moved out of walking distance of most neighborhood theaters, partly because we acquired a mortgage and a night at the theater can get pretty expensive, but mostly because we're lazy. Following the theater takes effort: it doesn't come to you, you have to actively seek it out. Unless the show is "Billy Elliot" playing at one of the huge downtown palaces, it's not like there's any advertising. You're on your own and at the end of the day, it's a lot easier to sit in your living room and switch on "House" than it is to pick up a paper, scan the theater listings, comb through reviews, schlep to some tiny, hard-to-spot storefront building and hunt for parking. On a Monday night.

All this is by way of explaining why it took so long for us to get around to seeing the Neo-Futurist's "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," which bills itself, at 21 years and counting, as Chicago's longest-running show and who am I to question that. TMLMTBGB consists of 30 plays in 60 minutes, with an ever-rotating cast performing a constantly changing "menu" of acts. We'd probably be ignorant still if my friend Craig hadn't called me up on Sunday and invited us to last night's special performance at the Biograph--a one-night-only, all-female presentation (TMLMTLadyGB) featuring current and past Neo-Futurists. This time, the theater had in fact come to us, so how could we refuse.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, or that I even understood what we were attending. I like Craig enough to follow him blindly. Here's what I learned (and could have sought out beforehand on that handy thing called the Internet): The thing about the Neo-Futurists is that they don't produce traditional plays. The actors appear onstage as themselves and they write their own "scripts," which are drawn from personal experiences. The difference, more or less, between writing an essay vs. a novel. In a round table, of sorts, after the show (there was no table, round or otherwise), the cast members noted that what they do bears little similarity to traditional "acting." They may take on a persona, but they don't put on a character. The result was dazzling.

Just to quickly set the scene: A clothesline runs the length of the stage, pinned with pieces of paper numbered 1-30. The audience is handed a menu, also numbered 1-30, with the corresponding titles of the various plays. When a performer says "curtain," audience members yell out the numbers of the plays they want to see. Whichever number cast members hear first, they yank off the line and away we go.

Craig was immediately obsessed with #23, "Bad Clowns, Really Bad Clowns." Because he is a clown. For real. I had a thing for #12, "Pride and Prejudice II." Because I am a geek for Jane Austen. I suspect my husband looked at #8, "Presidential Cunnilingus," and wished he had stayed home. I suspect he changed his mind after the opener, #6 "Just Give Me a Jamaican Accent and a Calculator," which, like the inaptly labeled round table, had nothing to do with Jamaicans or calculators. I have no idea what it was about actually--just an angry, rambling, hilarious tirade by Jessica Anne, she of the carrot hair, helium voice and intense eyes, that culminated in her yelling "I have one leg." You won't hear anything like this on TV or in film and you certainly won't see anyone like her. (A fact, reinforced later in the evening, when David Letterman welcomed Jennifer Lopez to his show.)

It was like that, play after play. There were oddities, including #24, "Cash for Cluckers," which had Kristie Koehler clucking at an audience member until he ponied up the titular cash. Or Rachel Claff in #26, "Trust Me. Every Single Sentence of Moby Dick Is a Life Lesson" thumbing to a random page and reading a random sentence of the Melville classic to prove her point.

But more were like #3, "One for the Ladies," a pointed discussion of toilet etiquette. (Ladies stop squatting over toilet seats and spraying them with the very liquids you're trying to avoid.) Or #5, "girlie girlie dum-dum game" with cast members' heads springing out of cardboard boxes like whack-a-moles to spout common female pleas--Do you love me? Do you love me? Or #11, "Cut 'Em off at the Pass," which pondered the genetic test that causes women to proactively cut off their breasts, and whether men would behave similarly if they discovered they had the gene for prostate cancer. Just asking. Or the breathtaking #4, "A Very Very Neo-Futurist Play," that had Noelle Krimm bravely wiping off her make-up, taking out her contacts, swapping her form-fitting top for a shapeless sweatshirt and trading her butt-enhancing thong for maternity underwear (behind a tastefully held towel). This is what a real woman looks like, stripped of all artifice.

It was exhilarating.

I think, as women, we get used to being interpreted by men and the media (which are really the same thing). So it was astounding to spend an entire evening seeing myself more or less accurately reflected back at me. It was like "Sex and the City," only without New York and the fabulous clothes and lifestyles to make me feel like crap. It was like everything we expect from Tina Fey--and only Tina Fey--that she can't possibly deliver. And you know what, there were lots of men in the audience, who were laughing and whooping and applauding as much as the women. Because they know what we're really like, and they think we're funny and amazing too, when we get the chance.

Not to toot my own horn, but the entire evening was encapsulated in my play of choice, "Pride and Prejudice II." Claff, Krimm and Chloe Johnston took to the stage, enacting a drawing room scene in the Bennett household after the weddings of Jane and Elizabeth. With no Mr. Darcy or Bingley to liven their day, the women sat down to tea, embroidery and reading, respectively. Not a word was spoken. Claff took a sip from her china cup, Johnston primly held her book aloft and gradually turned a page, Krimm gazed up and sighed, opened her mouth as if to talk but then thought better of it. Their ennui was palpable; in the absence of men, they had nothing to animate them. This, of course, was the plight of females in Austen's time (and "Mad Men"'s for that matter), but couldn't have been further from the truth demonstrated on stage last night. If the world were at all fair, and talent won out over image, all of these performers would have bigger careers than Jennifer Aniston. Alas and alack.

I couldn't help but think of "Saturday Night Live" and how it might benefit from the creative input of these gifted Neo-Futurists. Imagine actual, relevant satire and cultural commentary on "SNL." Instead of another pointless and grating Target Lady skit, we'd get "on playgrounds across the street from organic bakeries." ("My baby's half black and half Filipino." "My baby has autism but we're just pretending he's gifted.") Who's the second city now?

Note to self: Stop being so lazy. Turn off the TV. Get thee to the theater.


Blogger Diana said...

Thanks, Patty!


8:53 AM


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