Animal Dream | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Mom and Dad Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

The influence of television on a large number of recent plays has been unmistakable--little 60- to 90-minute one-set narratives with much talk and minimal action, and characters who are just ordinary confused people like us (albeit much more sensitive, articulate, and good-looking). These characters' decisions run no deeper than which brand of soap will clean this mess all up (the "Let's Have a Baby" brand is growing more predominant, but the "Kill Everybody" brand has lost none of its popularity).

This is probably why it's perversely refreshing to encounter an ugly, inarticulate, ragtag, clumsy play willing to take on good versus evil, the battle between God and the devil for man's soul, totemistic shamanism, the fine line between sex and violence, the pseudotribalistic pack instinct of street gangs, the existential imperative and the avoidance of it, and probably many other philosophical dilemmas at which I--and possibly even the playwright--can only guess. Renee Philippi's Animal Dream has many imperfections, but limited scope isn't one of them--this herculean effort makes me willing to overlook a lot of flaws.

Spit is the leader of a cold-blooded gang that's preparing to execute two members for "disobeying the rules." Execution is to be by injection, but one of the prisoners overcomes his captors and stabs Spit with the syringe. As our protagonist writhes and twitches in agony, two figures appear--a matronly woman in an apron and flowered hat (whom everybody will later call Mother), and an old man in a battered leather jacket, tattered trousers, and, for most of the show, a wolfish mask decorated with eyedroppers, razor blades, safety pins, joints, and hypodermic syringes (the program calls him Jab). Jab announces that Spit will now dream "as we all do before we die."

In the next episode, the members of the gang have new names. Spit is now called Karl, and his girlfriend Jill is now Kelly. Mother is the old woman who bakes and delivers bread to the clubhouse. Kelly is angered by Karl's friendship with Mother and vows to kill her. With the help of the others in the pack--including Karl, it is implied--she does.

The play isn't over, though. After an intermission we see what appears to be a different version of the same story, in which Karl is more influenced by Mother's kindness--he even helps her bake bread. "I think you've kneaded enough," she says, before the "cruel and powerful" Kelly has the gang members drag Karl away so that they can kill her. But before they can complete the assassination, we shift abruptly to a courtroom scene, most of which is lifted from Alice in Wonderland and embellished with the childlike goofiness that used to be the Igloo Theater's stock-in-trade. A tearful Kelly is accused of hurting Mother, and Karl is to judge who is to be punished. As he agonizes over the decision, the courtroom suddenly disappears, and Karl is alone with Jab. Jab promises him eternal life with the beautiful Kelly if he will kill Mother, who admonishes him gently, "Bakers don't kill." Karl's decision now is whether to kill Mother and live forever, or refuse and die himself.

Declaring this all to be a dream in no way excuses throwing down two hours of this kind of chaos. Whether you believe dreams to be inspired by subconscious desires, ancestral memories, or actual occurrences on some other level of awareness, dreams always have some sort of centerline running through them. Animal Dream, however, appears to be a grab bag of dramatic themes. Mother Mary could be that obvious symbol for all that is good and gentle, while Jab could be the spirit of urban violence ("Kindness must be destroyed," he chants). Jab could even be the big evil himself. Karl's conflict could be oedipal, with Kelly the mate for whom he must leave his mother. Or, since the gang members seem to be becoming younger and more innocent, even in their destructiveness, as the play progresses, maybe this is a study of how childhood experiences shape later behavior. This is a hodgepodge of thematic snippets; you could take any ten minutes of these two hours and construct an entire play around it. Maybe Philippi will do just that in the future. She's just now working on her master's, so there should be plenty of time.

John Brown, as Spit/Karl, delivers a much more professional and coherent performance than the material offers him (all the more so considering that he joined the cast two weeks into rehearsal). Arch Harmon, Mike Kirk, and Shawn Durr list several other acting credits in their biographies; Laura Berry, Brigid Bynum, Hazel Manzardo, and Bill Noble either have none or consider themselves too hip to name them. Not that it makes much difference--all carry out their duties in a respectable academic manner, with the exception of Noble, who overacts with the shamelessness of a born and bred amateur (his casting may have been a matter of expedience; he's also listed on the program as the master electrician and carpenter, and, in a company where the mean age appears to be about 20, patriarchal faces are hard to find). There is also a five-person chorus who make nicely choreographed noises and movements.

I used to think this sort of ranting silly and sophomoric, and maybe it is. But after a too-steady stream of Disneyland plays in which fake heroes shoot fake bullets at fake monsters, Animal Dream at least asks us to consider the origins of urban violence and to question whether good can triumph over evil. And that's certainly as important as whether or not Miss Daisy can be friends with her chauffeur.

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