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In Nonsense Is Strength

Metaluna and the Amazing Science of the Mind Revue/WNEP Theater Foundation at the Annoyance Theatre



Metaluna and the Amazing

Science of the Mind Revue

WNEP Theater Foundation

at the Annoyance Theatre

By Carol Burbank

What does it mean when Freud sucks his cigar until you think it will come? When a man agrees to a cure for his chronic temper that requires him to wear a Styrofoam boater fitted with wires and gewgaws drilled into his brain? When vaudeville becomes a dance of death? Such apocalyptic foolishness would seem to express an agenda far beyond smart-assed iconoclasm. But no--not in the WNEP Theater Foundation's new show, or at least not in its best moments.

As conceived by playwright Joe Janes, Metaluna and the Amazing Science of the Mind Revue is a contemporary version of Dada, an early-20th-century movement rooted in avant-garde disgust at bourgeois values and despair over World War I. In this uneven homage to the artists, performers, and writers who attempted to demolish the ideology and practice of accepted aesthetics, WNEP simultaneously tells and anti-tells its story. Playing on five stages that surround the audience, the performers in effect present a meditation on the history of theater and human perception.

The conceptual framework of this collaborative piece is simple even though the effect is quite complicated. The two-hour show is a supposed performance by an actual Dada troupe "reenacting" its tour to the backwater of Metaluna, Indiana. There they became part of an experiment run by Sigmund Freud and his brain surgeon friend, Dr. Carlton Twist, and shocked the rubes of the town with their nonsensical dadaist antiaesthetic. This framework provides a forum for Janes's ideas about dadaism as well as for the characters and issues WNEP members want to explore.

The resulting hodgepodge of theatrical styles and random plot twists makes for a wacky evening, interrupted both by occasional brilliance and by a few stultifyingly stereotyped performances. But despite its faults, Metaluna achieves a disciplined and playful intellectual fullness unusual on Chicago's fringe. The sloppy improv aesthetic that dominates our performance scene reveals its weaknesses when it's contrasted with the dadaist tradition of carefully constructing insults to habitual ways of seeing and being. This revue reminds us that Dada is still useful because of the clarity it requires to attack convention and common sense and create a compelling metareality.

The performance begins before the official curtain time with the creation of a collage using glue, paper, and newspaper. A masked figure guides audience members in a blunt and childish ritual (true to Dada, I might add) in which they rip a word or phrase out of a newspaper, drop it from a height onto brown wrapping paper, and glue it where it falls, slapping hard for emphasis. People who arrive "late" must learn the process by doing it themselves; if this essentially random ritual is not followed, the hapless "artist" repeats the process until she does it right. A cast member then dives for the resulting work of art, which is pronounced finished (in pantomime), then cleared away without being displayed. The audience is encouraged to applaud at each stage of creation, and though it takes a while, the game is quite satisfying.

This introductory event is as much about polite attention and conformity as it is about breaking theatrical tradition. Throughout Metaluna WNEP uses simultaneous action, multiple stages, and shattered conventions to remind the audience of our self-assigned, somewhat docile role as witnesses. Dada offers audiences new choices, and if WNEP had more frequently resisted the impulse to burlesque conventions rather than break them, their audience might well have been more active, vocal, and confrontational, as audiences were during Hugo Ball's 1916 productions. But a few moments offering surprises worthy of Dada's reputation made the whole evening worthwhile.

Janes stands out as Baden, a member of this imaginary troupe, performing a truly dadaist poem, "My Tuba Is Full of Cake," which consists of mouth noises, imitations of animals and horns, and outraged bursts of syllables. But the fact that his audience--the Metaluna ladies' cultural society--is stereotypically nonplussed is a major drawback to the scene. Would dadaists have been content to pad the butt and bosom of the town's most repressed matron and to reduce her foolishness to a watered-down Mama's Family burlesque? It seems more likely they would have represented her with breasts on a stick or some other device even more shockingly reductive. Still, Janes manages to capture the sometimes disgusting, goofy, straight-faced confrontation of dadaist style, making history come alive briefly and showing that the Dada experiment still carries considerable power as theater.

The evening ends with a long, purposefully tedious stylization of a turn-of-the-century melodrama, parodying the genre's sentimentality and unwieldy plots. In this mini play a blind old woman is cared for by a loving nurse who uses a sound-effects man to convince the woman she's living on a palatial estate. When the old woman's son comes to visit her in the tiny apartment where she actually lives, he must pretend to be a brush salesman to protect the illusion of her contented life; he weeps as he reads her a long excerpt from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. The rest of the cast, sitting in rows like an audience on the stage opposite, repeats phrases, parrotlike, from Dickens's text.

Coming after the relatively consistent narrative of the earlier scenes, which includes details about the troupe's life in Metaluna, the suffrage movement, and a wonderfully dark parody of the American vaudeville stage, this ending is a welcome shock. Nonsense triumphs over closure--which is right for a tribute to Dada. And by layering the history of the crumbling Miss Havisham on the dadaist attempt to crumble the melodramatic tradition by the weight of its own nonsensical dust, Janes has created a complicated moment, staging a double museum piece as a contemporary experiment. Audiences familiar with the genres will probably find this ending easier to embrace, but even for the uninitiated, it represents a stunning dislocation of our expectations. The detailed, understated humor and charming sentimental performances are like cracked and dusty porcelain. The multiple-voiced script, which fractures the experience, seems to freeze the whole scene in a self-referencing and meaningless dream. It's a remarkable and rare moment that forces the audience to know itself as watching.

But audiences need to be attentive for these moments to succeed. And they need to be patient: the supporting cast sometimes offer jarringly stereotyped and oversimplified performances. Kate Hendrickson plays a suffragist contender for mayor of Metaluna in the blandest style of naturalism I've ever seen, acting only with her face and arms, speaking long, earnest speeches without irony or passion. In an obvious joke, David Schmidt's energetic but cardboard Freud walks across the stage wearing a slip. Many of those playing Meta-luna locals go for the most immediate stereotype, indicating a lofty moral purpose with a high voice and arms akimbo, or uncontrollable rage by shouting through gritted teeth. Because these and other stereotyped characters are filler in most of the scenes, the joke of "dadaists meet rubes" wears thin very quickly.

With all the delight and self-indulgence and exuberance of overgrown children WNEP tumbles and shouts its way through this challenging experiment. It only partly succeeds. But Janes clearly knows his cultural history, and when he and his colleagues achieve the art-bashing nonsense of Dada's high style, the less skillful burlesques seem only minor annoyances. With some weeding out of weak cast members, more experience with physical theater, and more of Joe Janes, WNEP might someday create a disciplined antiaesthetic for the 90s. Where there's life, there's hope.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Wilson.

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