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Abstract Polemic With Moving Parts

A festival meant to celebrate the French doesn't do them any favors.

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The Warriors

European Repertory Company

at the Chicago Cultural Center

How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients

Wing & Groove Theatre

at the Chopin Theater

Imagine you're the diplomat responsible for Cultural Services at the French embassy in Chicago. Your proud nation is taking a pubic relations beating here because Jacques Chirac was silly enough not to follow Bush into Iraq. (The fool! He could be sharing in our victory even now.) You've got to find a way to counteract the stigma of freedom fries and reestablish France's good name. What do you do? Mais bien sur! It is obvious, is it not? Put together a festival of contemporary French plays performed by local companies.

I certainly admire the highmindedness of the concept, but the Playing French festival doesn't look to me like the sort of thing that's going to win (back?) the affection of Joe and Jane America. Based on what I've seen, in fact, it may end up reinforcing certain unfortunate Gallic stereotypes.

The stereotype of the overly earnest French intellectual, for instance. It's been observed that French theatrical tradition maintains a fastidious distinction between tragedy and comedy, Racine and Moliere, Cocteau and Jerry Lewis. Where English-speaking theater had the example of Shakespeare's wise and popular recognition that the truth is anything but pure--that it consists, more often than not, of messy negotiations between the profound and the ridiculous (think how funny Hamlet is as he hurtles toward not-being, how deeply Caliban aches)--the French got hung up on classical austerities that rendered their high dramatic literature Grimly Philosophical.

The Warriors is a case in point. Although described as a dark comedy, this 1991 script by Philippe Minyana comes across more like a morbid allegorical riddle in which we guess which of four war-damaged individuals will--what? Survive? That seems like too optimistic a term under the circumstances. Will not get to die would be more accurate. Will it be Mole, the trench digger who's lost his balls? Or Wolf, the would-be lover who's lost his hand? Noel, the corrupt soldier whose moral heart's gone missing in action? Or Constance, the young woman whose home and family have been carried off by the winds of war? In a way, The Warriors can be seen as a nihilist Wizard of Oz without a Wizard or an Oz. No help, hope, or destination, in other words--just four souls missing parts.

Each of these souls arrives separately and delivers his or her own long oration, full of imagery portraying war as gross-out hell: vivid descriptions of diarrhea, geysering vomit, airborne limbs, gang rape, ramparts built of dead bodies. Interconnections are disclosed and Constance emerges as a kind of profane Dorothy, a saintly whore and beatified sexual victim around whom the others coalesce. Obviously, Minyana's interested in archetypes. And rather familiar, static archetypes at that. This is the sort of play where plot is a function of the characters' names. The action--when it comes--consists of a last-minute, perfunctory playing out of the symbolic punch line.

Half of me was interested--but half of me wanted to jump out of my skin, especially after I realized that neither Mole nor Wolf nor Noel nor Constance was to be denied the long oration. Minyana's zest for the grotesque and the repugnant has its fascination, but even the most spectacular butchery can outlast our tolerance. And it outlasts our tolerance pretty quickly when it comes in the midst of what amounts to an abstract polemic with moving parts.

Not that this European Repertory Company production doesn't keep those parts moving nicely. With clever, crisp video by Erin Yerges, Rick Frederick's production adds a saving bit of visual wit to the text. Steve Cinabro helps, too, as Mole, projecting as much goofy charm as a new-made eunuch might be expected to project. Tim Donovan has a fine, blasted quality as Noel.

The situation is reversed in the Wing & Groove Theatre Company's festival entry, How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients. Matei Visniec's play about a writer in residence at a mental hospital in Stalin's Soviet Union is every bit as polemical as The Warriors but 100 times more fun, more entertaining, more human--maybe because Visniec's not a native Frenchman but a French-speaking Romanian, like another playwright who was able to bring some profound humor to Racine's stage, Eugene Ionesco.

It's the production that kills the script here. Kills it dead.

Bryan White's direction is vague, sloppy, and utterly disconnected from the political and cultural realities of Stalinism. He picks up and pops styles like so many Valiums, making a mishmash of scenes that might have given us a sense of what's going on. He repeats certain gags over and over to no effect--no, not even after the tenth repetition. As the hospital director, Mark Woods acts like a Texas football coach--which would be funnier if it were intentional. But worst of all, the writer, played by Santosha Chantal, is a complete if amiable blank. With no sense of the writer's journey--which is supposed to take him from dutiful functionary to absurd dropout--White and Chantal put an unpluggable, unplayable, undisguisable hole right in the center of Visniec's script. A couple of the crazies come out with their mad dignity intact--Tony Janning, Adam Verner, and Lucas Peterson in particular. But that's it.

The Warriors

When: Through 10/30: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM.

Where: Chicago Cultural Center, studio theater, 78 E. Washington

Price: $15-$20

Info: 312-742-8497

How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients

When: Through 10/20: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 10/10 and 10/17, 3 PM

Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

Price: $12-$15

Info: 773-782-9416

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