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The Babysitter

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THE BABYSITTER

Parallax Theater Company

at the Chicago Actors Project

Females in certain occupations seem to symbolize sexual availability. Stewardesses, for example. And chambermaids. And cocktail waitresses.

And sometimes even baby-sitters.

Such women ignite erotic fantasies in men, fantasies about nubile females smoldering with sexual desire, eager to be conquered.

Of course, there's something ludicrous about such fantasies, as the briefest glance at pornography will attest. In these fantasies, the sex drive is oddly detached from the emotions; but at the same time, the sex act is surrounded by a narcissistic melodrama--the woman doesn't just crave sex, she craves sex with a particular man who drives her into a frenzy of unbridled desire. The fact that such fantasies bear virtually no connection to reality does little to curb their popularity.

In his short story, The Babysitter, Robert Coover brilliantly ridicules the sexual fantasies triggered by a teenage girl. And in his fine adaptation of the short story, director Victor D'Altorio, working with the Parallax Theater Company, cleverly intensifies the absurdity and violence that Coover finds implicit in such fantasies.

Actually, The Babysitter is not one short story--it's several of them, fragmented and reassembled to allow events to unfold in different ways. The melody line for Coover's wild literary improvisation involves a teenage girl who is baby-sitting the three small children of Harry and Dolly Tucker, a middle-aged suburban couple on their way to a neighborhood party. While the Tuckers are out, the baby-sitter is supposed to feed the children, give them baths, and put them to bed. And in one version of the story, that's what happens.

But Coover provides several other outcomes. In one of them, the baby-sitter's boyfriend calls, she tells him that the Tuckers don't want her to have friends over when she baby-sits, and he accepts that. In another version, he comes over anyway to watch TV. In yet another version, he recruits a friend to go with him, and they peer into the bathroom window and discover her naked, getting into the bathtub. And in other versions, the boyfriend and his companion actually go into the house, where their adolescent sexual fantasies come true amid shocking violence.

Other facets of the story also unfold in numerous ways. In one version, Mr. Tucker merely notices how attractive the baby-sitter is. "Bare thighs . . . nothing up there but a flimsy pair of panties and soft adolescent flesh," the narrator says, reporting Mr. Tucker's thoughts. "He's flooded with vague remembrances of football rallies and movie balconies." In other versions, he actually returns to the house and tries to seduce her. In some of these, he fails miserably; in others, his wildest sexual fantasies come true.

The alternatives divide and multiply in Coover's overheated imagination. It's as though he could envision so many interesting outcomes to the story that he was overwhelmed and finally decided, what the hell, I'll use them all.

The result is a narrative that masterfully reveals the erotic imagination at work. And Coover seems to know what he's talking about--he does not present the fantasies as idle reveries incidental to the "real" events. On the contrary, the fantasies in The Babysitter are just as real as "reality," illustrating Freud's contention that sexual impulses are always alive within us, dictating our behavior in ways we barely suspect.

Coover's short story is fun to read, but watching the Parallax adaptation is even more delightful: the actors' performances add color and tone to Coover's narrative. Lydia Howe as the baby-sitter does a wonderful job of suggesting this shy girl's sexual anxiety--and her sexual curiosity. Just after she arrives, for example, she "catches a glimpse of Mr. Tucker hurrying out of the bathroom in his underwear." On the page, that line is merely a fact; but in the Parallax adaptation, when the narrator recites that line Howe gives an embarrassed laugh, and her reaction indicates that the glimpse has stirred something in the baby-sitter.

This adaptation gives Matt Diehl as Mr. Tucker the same opportunities. While driving to the party with his wife, he fantasizes that the baby-sitter is attracted to him. "She had seemed to be self-consciously arching her back, jutting her pert breasts, twitching her thighs," the narrator says as Mr. Tucker drives, "and for whom if not for him?" When his wife, pulling at her girdle, asks, "What do you think of our baby-sitter?" the embarrassed, wide-eyed shock on Diehl's face provides a laugh that's not in Coover's story.

Scott Sampson embodies the chronic sexual frustration of Jack, the boyfriend, who thinks that "married people really have it good" because they get to sleep together every night. Jeff Shea exudes the snide cruelty of Jack's friend Mark, who offers to go with him to the Tuckers and warm up the baby-sitter sexually. "Like maybe together, man, we could do it," he suggests.

Scott Holstein and Carol Porter play the children, and both cleverly use wide-eyed facial expressions and tentative body language to suggest the anxious defiance of the baby-sat. Colette Novich gets some of the biggest laughs as Dolly Tucker, whose girdle problems reach epic proportions.

The program includes a quote from The Liberal Imagination, by Lionel Trilling: "The poet is in command of his fantasy, while it is exactly the mark of the neurotic that he is possessed by his fantasy." It's implied that Coover, in The Babysitter, demonstrates the truth of the quote; and in a way he does.

But The Babysitter is written with such delirious freedom and imagination that the author, rather than being in complete control of his fantasy, may have been a bit possessed by it, too.

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