ACTS OF KINDNESS
Seahorse Theatre Project
NICE PEOPLE DANCING TO GOOD COUNTRY MUSIC
Chicago Actors Ensemble
Off-Off Loop Theatre Festival
at the Theatre Building
Writing up nights one and three of this year's Off-Off Loop Theatre Festival would've been child's play if not for the Chicago Actors Ensemble and Hamletmachine. A certain amount of solicitude, a certain amount of dismissal, and I woulda had me a review like filling out a questionnaire.
The Huron Theater's "group generated" piece, Weights: not as bad as might be supposed, considering the potential for sheer awfulness implicit in its rehashed, late-60s, Aquarian tactics.
The Seahorse Theatre Project production of John Schneider's Acts of Kindness: callow but competent; interesting mainly as a showcase for some attractive, young talent-in-progress.
The Touchstone Theatre version of Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music: disappointing, because of the company's failure to exploit innumerable sweet opportunities available in Lee Blessing's delicate comedy.
Not a terribly fascinating set of observations, but honest. And rather hopeful, all in all. Like the shows themselves.
But then along came Hamletmachine, the second offering on night three -- after Nice People, inappropriately enough. And now I've got to get all crazy and tortured and shivery and stunned and excited and full of praise and questions. Now everything's so much more complicated. The critic's out of joint. And grateful.
Hamletmachine's a ten-year-old work by East German playwright Heiner Muller, best known in the United States for his collaboration with Robert Wilson on that vast and largely unseen postmodernist epic, The Civil Wars. A text as opposed to a conventional script -- with stage directions ("On a swing, the madonna with breast cancer") that evoke more than they explain -- Hamletmachine functions as a theatrical centrifuge in which Shakespeare's masterpiece gets spun around at terrific speeds, until its essences separate out.
And we're left with brutal, elemental concentrates. Extract of misogyny. Tincture of sexual confusion. Elixir of oedipal hatred and longing. Distillate of egotistic self-absorption -- an absorption so complete in Muller's Hamlet that he ends up coming out the other side, into a sort of Hegelian schizophrenia where he's both victim and catalyst in an endless dialectic: the serpent biting its own tail.
Ophelia's reached an even sharper, more savage state of clarity. She appears here as the very image of the self-abnegating, self-loathing woman -- a subject of male fantasy, an object of male rage. Her despair, turned inward at first, must eventually poison the world. "When she walks through your bedrooms carrying butcher knives," she declares, quoting Manson family member and would-be assassin Squeaky Fromme, "you'll know the truth." More than anything, I think, Hamletmachine in its Chicago Actors Ensemble realization is about the subjugation of women, the derangement of sexual justice.
It's also brilliant. Reading Muller's obstinate and impossible text, one begins to understand just how brilliant. Director Rick Helweg's brought more than a strategy to Muller's utterance -- he's brought vivifying wit, sophistication, showmanship, and conviction as well. And so elicited some mighty scary, commanding performances from a very young company. He's even got the well-earned nerve to throw in a sly, devastating parody of Robert Falls's punkified Hamlet of a few seasons back. Cheek like that's rare in Chicago theater -- and very welcome, as far as I'm concerned. CAE will be opening a production of Georg Buchner's notoriously difficult Woyzeck later this month; this Hamletmachine argues that they can handle it.
If Hamletmachine shares anything with the other festival entries I saw, it's conviction. These are all passionately sincere shows. It's an excess of sincerity, in fact, that sinks the Seahorse ensemble's otherwise very accomplished Acts of Kindness. The story of some emotionally devastated young people, Kindness founders when actors in crucial roles take their good intentions all the way to saintliness. Nothing at all would be lost, and a great deal gained, if those actors could leaven the Song of Bernadette stuff with a little irony, a little distance.
Oddly enough, ironic distance is the only thing that saves Weights. A stupefyingly naive reenactment of Famous Moments in Experimental Theater -- complete with flashlights, entrances through the house, and presumably atmospheric hissing noises -- Weights survives only because its obligatory confessional section deflects laughter by asserting some laughter of its own.
Nothing, finally, is likely to save Nice People. At least, not until the cast learns to convey a subtext. It's a shame, too, because the play's a neat, tender, and subtle piece of work. The only real help it's getting right now is that aforementioned conviction, and the fact that it's followed by CAE's marvelous show.