A LOT OF FISH THERE ARE: OOBLECK SHORT PLAYS
In January of 1990, when I reviewed Theater Oobleck's spectacular When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus? Oobleck was a relatively new enterprise crammed into a funky little space near Broadway and Irving Park, rightfully taking Chicago by storm with work that was intelligent, innovative, sophisticated, and entertaining. Their most recent offering, A Lot of Fish There Are: Oobleck Short Plays, being shown in their roomy new space at Foster and Ashland, is disappointing by comparison, lacking the creative spark that once shone so brightly.
A Lot of Fish There Are is an evening of five original one-act plays written by the performers who appear in them. The program is intentionally eclectic, with no thematic or stylistic consistency, as if the Ooblecks simply wanted to give several artists a chance to present new work. It's a noble idea, and one that might make for a more successful evening if these plays were presented over two programs as works in progress. But as it stands, these relatively insubstantial pieces can't sustain the weight of a two-hour production.
Most surprising about this evening is the lack of creativity in the plays. Rats was innovative in both its subject matter and its theatrical methods. But Fish is a wholly conservative affair, with all-too-familiar material presented in an all-too-familiar manner. Martin Greiner's Somebody Gets Hits in the Head takes us inside the human body to watch a moment of trauma: Somebody (Danny Thompson) gets hit on the head by a Meany (Nancy Bishop). The Right Brain and Left Brain (Thompson and Bishop respectively) try to decide how best to respond, although all the Right Brain can do is bring up old, irrelevant memories. The Ear (Annette Jagner) is in a state of panic, forcing the Big Toe (Greiner) to go into action, locating the floor and finally allowing Somebody to fall over.
To some extent Greiner acknowledges the obvious nature of his humor, dressing each actor in a huge body-part costume that reeks of seventh-grade art project. But the self-deprecation seems halfhearted, and the play is left uncomfortably poised between self-parody and self-indulgence. Its core idea simply isn't taken far enough. Why select only brain, ear, and toe? The intricate inner workings of the human body are a fascinating source of humor, as Woody Allen showed in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). But Greiner's exploration is too superficial to produce much humor.
Two plays on the bill intentionally parody major American theater artists. Ted deMoniak's Mallet and the uncredited VAuDeViLLe WArS: Kierkegaard on the Patio attempt to spoof David Mamet and Robert Wilson respectively. But both pieces lack a thorough understanding of or appreciation for the lampooned artists, and the plays end up seeming mean-spirited. Both also send up only their targets' most superficial qualities. Mallet pits a man named Mallet (deMoniak) against his wife, a prostitute, and a gun salesman (all played by Laura Fisher); the dialogue is predictably repetitive and vulgar. VAuDeViLLe WArS resorts to even cheaper shots, putting an ensemble of performers in pajamas through a series of enigmatic simple gestures to a repetitive piano score. This messy, haphazard piece not only fundamentally misses Wilson's style--have you ever seen anything even remotely messy in his work?--but fails to appreciate his playful quality of self-parody. Why satirize the very qualities the artist himself doesn't take seriously?
Buck & Town, credited to Dave Bompland and the cast, is a farce that pits prisoners Alan Buck (Bompland) and Ralph Town (David Isaacson) against prison officials Ms. Tirta (Barbara Thorne) and the Warden (Jeff Dorchen). The prisoners, who are the best of friends, unwittingly coerce each other into making treasonous statements against the president, so each is simultaneously a hero (for ferreting out a traitor) and a condemned criminal. It's a clever scenario, but the play's logic is simply not tight enough to make its exaggerated reality convincing. For example, Buck and Town implicate each other by conversing over a brick wall, each thinking the other is someone else. But if these prisoners have been friends for 25 years and even share the same cell, how could they not recognize each other's voices? Scenes like this ultimately make the piece seem forced, as if Bompland couldn't find a way for his play to work within the reality he'd created. The acting, generally overwrought and underfunded, doesn't help. Even Dorchen, who turned in a brilliant performance in Rats, seems lost in this piece, endlessly arranging empty paper cups on his desk instead of engaging in any meaningful stage business.
The one piece with potential for deeper resonance is Remorse, by Angela Woodward, who also accompanies the piece on the violin. Written as a narrative but performed by a single person, Lisa Black, Remorse concerns a mythical queen who vacillates between vicious fascism and childlike vulnerability. The writing is admirably sparse and clear, but the piece as a whole lacks metaphoric and thematic coherence and seems somewhat aimless as a result. Black's presence is arresting, especially during the stony silences she lets fall at significant moments, her face stolidly guarding against any hint of expression. But the uniformity of her delivery makes it difficult for momentum to develop.
Perhaps A Lot of Fish There Are is simply an aberration for Theater Oobleck. Even a genius is allowed an occasional stupid idea; it needn't detract from the genius. Since I haven't seen much of Oobleck's work, I don't know if this new production is representative of their current offerings. If it is, perhaps Oobleck has simply run out of inspiration. If not, I look forward to the return of rigorous theatrical exploration and ingenuity to their stage.