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THE MYSTERIES AND WHAT'S SO FUNNY?

at the Blackstone Theatre

October 23-25

You talk fast, and you lard your talk with one-liners, bits of philosophy, and cheap shots, even--especially--at yourself. You talk no matter what, no matter how many others have entered the fray: you just talk louder, talk better, talk a wide, fast blue streak. That's the stereotype of New York Jewishness, and it's the style David Gordon's adopted in The Mysteries and What's So Funny?, which played last weekend at the Blackstone Theatre under the auspices of Performing Arts Chicago.

Because The Mysteries is so fast, it covers a lot of ground. Looking back over it you seem to see a broad plain crammed with events and people and about a million jokes. Yet it's only 90 minutes and has a cast of just 13, though some of them play multiple roles. Writer and director Gordon has managed to create a work both wide ranging and focused, more or less splitting The Mysteries between two worlds: the sophisticated, dispassionate, and supremely intelligent world of Marcel Duchamp and the chaotic, angry, severely limited world of Sam and Rose--a married couple, the children of Jewish immigrants, who are stand-ins for Gordon's own parents. Both implicitly and explicitly, the show examines the mysteries of creation, and whether artistic creation and procreation are at odds.

Valda Setterfield, Gordon's wife and artistic partner for many years, is wonderfully dry as Duchamp, a model of self-possession as she strolls about the stage delivering his witty, cultured, intelligent reflections on art. Yet the tailored suit the artist wears--designed, like the elaborate cartoonish set, by Red Grooms--is transparent, so we can see the boxer shorts, the garters holding up the black socks, in short all the lowly underpinnings of elegance. The design may be a variation on a joke in the piece about wearing your underwear outside your clothes, but certainly the effect is leveling. And though you get the impression Gordon adores Duchamp, seeing him as a kind of model, he also makes fun of his own reverence: at one point a character says, "Hey, Duchamp, how 'bout a movie tonight?" and the artist loftily replies, "No, I must stay here and complete my final work."

So in this corner we have Duchamp, who moves in isolated splendor. And in the opposite corner are a whole slew of misguided folks, introduced by an oral family history that's the height of confusion and ambiguity--a veritable whirl of parents, siblings, and children. Old Sam and Rose (wonderfully played as if they're not playing at all by Jerry Matz and Lola Pashalinski) sit in front of the TV and bicker; the young Sam and Rose (Scott Cohen and Karen Graham) are heartbreakingly pretty and in love; Mr. and Mrs. Him (Bill Kux and Tisha Roth) call each other "hon" and hate each other's guts; the Detective and Only Child (Norma Fire) holds the show together with her questions; and Fanny (Jane Hoffman), Rose's mother, cuts the air like a knife with her angry, funny talk. Then there are the attendants and factotums: Anger I and II (Scott Cunningham and Adina Porter), who both illustrate and incite the passions; the Young Artist (Dean Moss) who attends Duchamp; and the Actor (Alice Playten), who takes on a multitude of roles and undercuts them all, to hilarious effect.

Factotums are necessary because Gordon has devised a constant swirl of activity onstage--he was after all a choreographer long before he was a director and writer, starting out at Judson Church in the 60s. Part of that activity comes from the fact that the players act as stagehands too--they constantly manipulate and display Grooms's props and movable scenery, whose portability and versatility are key. But even when an actor is not swinging a pasteboard clock overhead or framing his fellows with an absurdly false and rococo gilt frame, he's apt to be walking about the stage, often in circular patterns. Gordon also fills the piece with physical humor and puns--as when Mrs. Him, in a fit of fury, her hand gnawed on by Anger I, is visibly consumed by rage. Though I've seen Gordon's early work only on video, I'd say its success was based on the tenet "Keep it witty, keep it moving." And that tenet works as well for the overstuffed Mysteries as it did for Gordon's early, minimalist work.

Another thing Gordon does is to double movement, which calls attention to the staginess of the whole enterprise. At one point three stories belonging to the Only Child are told in alternating bits by three pairs of actors, each pair moving in unison while one speaks and the other lip-synchs the words. And to watch two actors at once "unself-consciously" hook their hair behind their ears, for instance, makes us see the theatrical illusion in the simplest onstage gesture. Anger I and II expose that illusion even more blatantly: hovering like malevolent angels over Mr. and Mrs. Him lying in bed, they not only provoke them (bopping them on the head, pulling up the straps of their night wear) to angry actions but manipulate them through the motions, pulling Mrs. Him's arms out, for instance, in a histrionic gesture of pretend surprise. Finally, when Mr. Him engages in a dialogue with Duchamp (the blustering Mr. Him seems Gordon's comic counterpart, ludicrously concerned about his reputation), both of them carry scripts, and one of the Furies manipulates Mr. Him (but not Duchamp) through every single hackneyed gesture that goes with his part.

There's an element of bravura in The Mysteries, as if Gordon were madly undercutting himself at every turn, venerating and exposing the theater at once, just as he venerates and exposes his own family and Duchamp--who's infuriatingly perfect. The flamboyantly artificial set and costumes add to the work's air of self-consciousness.

Yet Gordon clearly aims for something more than a postmodern exercise in deconstructing the theater. He aims for emotion, and he gets it in the family scenes (when Philip Glass's music is likely to swell), particularly those between old Rose and Sam. When Matz and Pashalinski reenact Sam and Rose's first meeting, at a party in Brooklyn, their aged forms and manner make it painfully obvious how distant those times have become, and yet these are clearly the same people: "I'm a marine," says Sam with a pride he's clearly carried his whole life; "I am Rose, I'm Rose," says his wife-to-be with a touching combination of bravado and tentative self-confirmation. There's something archetypal about these two, who dutifully fill their conventional roles and are filled with rage as a result.

Gordon tends to see these family matters from a traditional feminist perspective: Rose identifies herself as daughter, wife, and mother; Mrs. Him rages at being called "baby," "hon," "miss," "lady"--everything but her own name. Sam is trapped in the role of provider, which makes him steely, dark, and bitter. There's something a little too predictable about this take on things, and to me the final scene of reconciliation between Rose and Sam did not ring true, though I have to admire Gordon's impulse to redeem the lives of his family and our lives in the process. Yet he's a master of the poignant throwaway--the only child saying "It's hard, having a snail for a pet"; the bitter old lady, abandoned years ago by her husband, raging at her daughter, "One minute she likes some bum, the next she's raising six children alone." And he's a master of the poignant image, imagining and briefly re-creating his parents' honeymoon bed, where they lie fully clothed and in ecstasy. It seems that what's unimaginable in our youth--our parents' youth--must be imagined when we reach middle age. Oddly, that contemplative act, that taking stock, rests at the heart of this furious chase.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Eccles.

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