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Follies of Youth

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The Casual Family

Rhinoceros Theater Festival

at the Curious Theatre Branch

Sidewalk Etiquette

Hermit

Rhinoceros Theater Festival

at the Curious Theatre Branch

The Wolf Hunt

Rhinoceros Theater Festival

at the Curious Theatre Branch

Back in the day, experimental performance pretty much meant naked people. To attend an edgy work of time art was to have a fair chance of getting a look at somebody's private parts. Especially, it seemed, if that work was being put on by students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I'm sure those young SAIC artists of a generation ago had all kinds of sound aesthetic and polemical reasons for exposing themselves. But their naked bodies also had the practical value of distracting audience members from the often inscrutable foolishness of the performances themselves. It was a form of compensation, really: nudity made the shows easier to take.

Though all three members of the Casual Family have strong ties to the SAIC, they appear to have rejected the tradition of compensatory nudity. There are no naked people to be found in the program of four short plays that constitutes their contribution to this year's Rhino fest. So all that's left is the inscrutable--and unrelieved--foolishness.

It's difficult to say which of the plays is hardest to take. They all indulge in gratuitous mystification: nonsensical language, unmotivated interactions, unexplained premises, relationships and situations rendered incomprehensible by the careful elision of crucial information. Brian Torrey Scott's Understanding Shyness, for instance, is a series of short vignettes that seems at first to dramatize the small adventures of two men struggling with painful inhibitions. Before long, however, it discloses its true subject, which is Scott's self-congratulatory attempt to wow us with coy, erudite non sequiturs that obscure a good deal more than they illuminate. A speech about the liquid nature of glass is repeated many times to no effect, except to add to the fog of empty portentousness that settles over the play and stays there.

Scott's second play, Tuning In to the Power of Active Listening, is better. A little theatrical gimmick--two brothers are played interchangeably by a pair of actors--creates a visual metaphor that promises all kinds of provocative ambiguity. But once again the fog of portentousness rolls in. The piece remains static and abstract, though thankfully it's less obviously impressed with itself than Understanding Shyness.

Adam Vine's Airland is a noisy attempt at comic absurdity centered around a big baseball-playing galoot who's apparently been sent to Mars on a secret military mission. Vaguely reminiscent of David Greig's far, far superior The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union (as well as David Bowie's "Space Oddity"), Airland fails because it never supplies essential information--like who half the characters are--much less the sense of reality that would have made the absurdity palpably absurd rather than merely silly.

Aviary, by Nora Jean Lange, suggests a degree of talent but not much more. With exchanges such as the one in which a character says, "I smell turpentine," and receives the reply, "The days are getting longer," it declares nothing very clearly other than a desire to position itself as a study in stylish anomie.

The point of all four plays, in fact, may be missed communication on a habitual, societal level, and the isolation that results from it. Certainly that was the point made by the old absurdist playwrights the Casual Family so urgently attempts to emulate here. Neither Scott, nor Vine, nor even Lange has the chops at this point to make good on that attempt. Nor do they project the necessary maturity to do so: I came away from this show with nothing so much as an overpowering sense of their "ain't we great?" self-regard. That, and a feeling that these plays' willful unintelligibility is a bad idea at this historical moment. No thinking person needs the Casual Family to tell him that language has been completely subverted and no longer reflects either an emotional or objective reality. We all watch TV, after all. We've all heard the president. If these folks want to be truly avant-garde, they might consider going in precisely the opposite direction, toward absolute clarity and coherence. They might model themselves on those old SAIC naked people: so real, so tangible, so unmistakably what they are.

Idris Goodwin could use a model, too--but naked people aren't it. His Rhino entry, Sidewalk Etiquette, already strives toward a gritty sort of reality with its population of street people, small-time merchants, rappers, and drifters. Although it affects one or two mildly surreal contrivances, this tale of yuppie gentrification run amok is sincere urban portraiture with a social point to make.

Trouble is, that social point is undercut by Goodwin's timid narrative. Sidewalk Etiquette centers on an effete gentrifier who's dispensed with the niceties and simply started punching out the neighborhood. Almost superhuman in his blockbusting fury, he reduces a bunch of teenagers to tears and goes all Van Damme on a street musician. What Goodwin doesn't seem to realize is, first, how extraordinarily funny and telling this conceit is; and second, how much further it can be taken. Why don't the yuppie's acts of violence escalate into real mayhem? Why isn't he grinding up the bones of local gangbangers, a la Sweeney Todd, to make mortar for his ten-foot privacy wall? There's all kinds of great grotesque potential here.

Goodwin's restraint not only causes him to miss comic opportunities, it frustrates his political intentions. As presently constituted, Sidewalk Etiquette has only one villain: Pharris, the evil yuppie. Get rid of him (and incidentally come into some unexpected money), the playwright seems to say, and the problem's solved. Though of course it isn't. The play demands but never receives a larger analysis that will express--physicalize--the social-political-economic-cultural environment of which Pharris and the neighborhood are both products. It demands some epic sweep. It demands some Brecht.

If the Casual Family plays and Sidewalk Etiquette have anything in common, it's profligacy. The first show doesn't know when to stop, and the other doesn't know how. By contrast Matt Wilson's The Wolf Hunt is as spare and sharp as it can be. It tells its rather O. Henry-ish story of an ex-con's search for his parents in a few well-shaped scenes covering no more than 45 minutes.

The narrative is hokey. It depends on the characters' almost conspiratorial refusal to ask certain simple questions. And the final image is so literal as to be laughable. But the craft and conviction of The Wolf Hunt--together with a competent group of actors, directed by Wilson and Daniel Taube--make it possible to suspend skepticism and accept the truth of things as they're told. Which is refreshing.

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