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Big Comeback

Nomenil was a theater company to watch till the volatile partnership at its core hit the skids.

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Allen Conkle has carved a small clearing in the thicket of bric-a-brac that is his Edgewater living room, creating just enough space for him and two actresses to stand uncomfortably close together.

"We're just going to try some stuff out, see how it feels," Conkle says calmly to Romelle Walker, the young actress who's been cast as Sally in Love Pollution--the punk "tekno-popera" Conkle wrote in 1996 with his partner, Courtney Evans, for their adventurous, gender-bending theater company, Nomenil.

Walker is trying to sing along with a demo version of Sally's big song, "Child of Fate," performed by Christopher Powers, lead singer for Chicago homocore band Three Dollar Bill and the show's composer. The melody is full of difficult, unexpected intervals, and even Powers's pitch wavers. "I am the child / The child of fate / Oh Mummy you left me a long time before this," Walker sings. She looks painfully uncomfortable. "You think that you got me, but that's all a lie, lie, liiiieeee." The song's final note is so high the top of her skull seems in danger of popping off. She can't get anywhere near it.

She folds her hands over her face. "That's the effect, that's it," Conkle says with the measured reassurance of a high school guidance counselor. "It's not pretty. It's screechy."

He sends her off to his bedroom with the CD to screech in private while he works with actress Andrea Cornett. She pulls out her copy of "The Truth May Be Deceiving," the anthem her character, Hallelujia Blythe Bliss, sings at two pivotal points in the show. "This is the song," Conkle tells her. "The song people will walk out singing. Well, maybe. But I don't want it to sound so right."

"What?" Cornett asks.

"I don't want it to sound like it's from Rent. I want it to sound like Nomenil."

"Well, I've never seen a Nomenil show."

"Yes," Conkle says. "That's the challenge."

Not many other people have seen Nomenil shows either. The high-spirited, libidinal musicals--part Hanna-Barbera, part Russ Meyer--won a small but enthusiastic following during their heyday in the mid-90s. In their eight plays Conkle and Evans melded a punk sensibility with radical queer politics to create self-consciously cheesy fables with fangs.

Their favorite targets were gender norms, compulsory heterosexuality, consumerism, and theater itself. The duo drew inspiration from an experimental fringe scene, with now disbanded groups like Cook County Theater Department and Doorika producing uncategorizable shoestring spectacles that drew adventurous fans but little mainstream attention.

Nomenil seemed likely to prove the exception. By the time they were ready to mount Love Pollution in 1999 they were filling Cafe Voltaire's basement performance space, their work had been singled out in American Theatre magazine, and one of Hollywood's most powerful agencies had come calling. But then everything collapsed, and rather than putting the company on the map, Love Pollution blew them clean off it.

Now Conkle is retooling Love Pollution for the Rhinoceros Theater Festival--without his creative soul mate, on a meager budget coming out of his own pocket. The show is slated to open October 2 in the Chicago Cultural Center's pristine studio theater, a space about as suited to punk rock as a convalescent home.

A few weeks after Conkle and Evans met, they drove across the country together. It was 1993 and both were enrolled at Columbia College. "I was trying to learn playwriting at a place that didn't really have a playwriting program," Conkle says with a laugh. Evans was hoping to become an actress, and she was attracted by Conkle's zeal for theatrical experimentation.

"It was overwhelming and intoxicating," she recalls. "Things happen with Allen. Things I didn't know could happen."

They piled into Evans's 1988 Nissan Sentra. "We set off with no money and a bottle of herbal speed from the health food store," Evans says. "Drive, drive, drive, drive, drive, drive."

Most of the time the two stared silently at the landscape rushing by. "But at one point we had this conversation," Conkle says. "'You know, we both really hate theater. It just seems really boring, really dated, like it's not speaking to us.' 'So, then, why don't we make some new stuff?' 'OK, we'll do that when we get back.'"

In San Francisco, Evans found herself being hit on by lesbians and decided "it wouldn't be so bad to swing that way." She and Conkle were crashing in the living room of a friend of hers who, they discovered, had an appetite for crystal meth. They spent three days snorting the stuff, then their host borrowed Evans's keys and totaled her car. She had enough money to pay for Evans's flight home, but Conkle had to scrape up plane fare on his own.

Back in Chicago, Conkle and Evans had their first official creative meeting, in a Lakeview coffee shop. What came together during that discussion was their first play, Pushin' Up Roses, a hokey, licentious musical about two kids named Rose and Billy--best friends who, like their creators, both turn out to be gay. It took only a few days to finish. "All we did was get together and play," Evans says. "Writing Pushin' Up Roses was like playing on the playground."

Once they started rehearsing (using space at Columbia College until they were kicked out because neither was registered there any longer) they knew they had to come up with a name for their company. "Actually, I didn't want us to have a name at all," Conkle says, "because then people would expect it to be the same all the time. Courtney said the only thing that was important to her was liking the way it sounded coming out of her mouth. She said, 'I like Menomenee. Menomenee. She kept saying it. And I thought, Oh, nomen, nomenclature, name, and then nil. Without a name."

Nomenil's playful, free-associative approach carried over into the production, which opened at Cafe Voltaire in April 1994. Nonsingers sang, nonactors acted, odd-looking people were the norm (as would be the case in every Nomenil production). Evans played Rose with a mercurial ferocity that would become her trademark. "It's a sense of having all the character work you would do if you were doing a very straightforward, serious role, but then throwing that all away and just being like a child," Conkle says. "You have to take it seriously, and then fuck it."

To Conkle and Evans's delight, punk rockers and club kids began showing up to see the play. "We started to build a community for ourselves," Evans says. "We shared our joy with other actors, with photographers, with audiences, and it felt so warm to me to offer my heart to others in that way."

"There was an excitement, like having your first baby," Conkle says. "You take too many pictures of it, you tell too many people to come see it."

Over the next several years they created an impressive series of ridiculous but heartfelt shows, each more ingeniously unruly than the last. Their strongest pieces--Eat Your Art Out, That's the Way It Is, by Golly, and Like Our Parents Smoking Corn Silk--felt as though they were always on the verge of implosion. Anything might happen: products jumped off supermarket shelves and broke into song, out-of-work gay actors congregated in Laundromats to rehearse Fifth of July, wood sprites encouraged little girls to get their genitals replaced at the local Church of Eunuchology. The chaos was more than facile quirkiness--it was meant to signal a utopian destruction of social boundaries.

But seeds of discontent were beginning to sprout in the duo's relationship. Evans says part of the problem was her ego: "I'd like to say I was consciously trying to change the world with our plays...but I wanted, even though I would never have admitted it out loud, to be a star. I wanted to act and to have people tell me I was brilliant, simply because I didn't already realize that I was. My motivation was tainted, and at the time I didn't care that it was."

By the spring of 1999 Nomenil had made enough noise for Evans's face to end up in American Theatre magazine, which named her one of 30 noteworthy theater artists under 30. (I wrote the blurb, at the magazine's request. Conkle was 35, so he was out of the running.) A few weeks later a representative of Warren Littlefield's agency called, offering the duo the chance to write some TV scripts on spec. If the networks liked what they came up with, Evans and Conkle could end up writing for Felicity or Malcolm in the Middle.

"Neither of us really wanted to do this TV thing," Conkle says, "but we felt this pressure to do it, a pressure we thought was coming from each other. You know, We're a team, we have to do this."

"We decided to do it with the hope that we would make enough money and establish ourselves as artistic contenders," Evans says. "What a lousy experience that was."

They hammered out imaginary episodes of Ally McBeal, Freaks and Geeks, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "We loved our Buffy," Conkle says. "Xander got very depressed and started to shop by mail order, got obsessed with collecting Beanie Babies. Willow was trying to connect with her werewolf boyfriend, trying to become a werewolf herself, researching it to make her relationship work. Buffy was volunteering in an orphanage, and Willow as a werewolf comes to the orphanage and gets one of the kids in her mouth. Buffy has to decide whether to shoot her friend with a silver bullet. Courtney, of course, had to have all these silly allusions to Annie in the orphanage. The agency said it all went a little too far."

Evans and Conkle discovered they hated trying to mimic someone else's style. "The business aspect was extremely overwhelming too," Evans says. "We had to get a lawyer, and we had to follow this rule and that rule, and neither of us had been used to following any rules as artists, which was I think what had made our previous work so authentically ours. Mostly we just hated doing it."

They took out their frustrations on each other. "We were so at each other," Conkle says. "We didn't trust each other's creativity anymore. It just was not good." The TV networks never called. After they gave up, the two would never write together again.

But it took one more disaster to separate them for good. Love Pollution, had been collecting dust ever since they'd finished it three years earlier. Its campy plot concerned the Uglies, whose leader, demented scientist Sabita, secretly plots to replace them with new, perfect people free from greed, materialism, and attitude problems. The Townies, meanwhile, wish to eliminate all the ugliness in the world, starting with the Uglies.

The most coherent, accessible thing the pair ever wrote, it was going to be their big breakthrough. They rented a real theater (Angel Island). They ramped up their press campaign. But for the first time, a Nomenil production was not coming together.

"Love Pollution started out as a stalled car," Evans says. The growing rift in her friendship with Conkle made it difficult for them to return to the playground where they usually collaborated.

"One part of that split was built around my sexuality," Evans says. "I had come to realize that I had not and was not going to find my emotional and physical needs in relationships with women. My coming out as a straight girl turned out to be a barrier in how we related together as artists and as friends. Creativity is as intimate as sex, and Allen and I were so close and so deeply embedded into one another's creative hearts, I think subconsciously we confused the two. We were like jealous lovers with a computer screen for a bed, and our process became awkward and dishonest, and neither one of us was getting our rocks off."

They went into rehearsals, Conkle directing, Evans playing Hallelujia, a fembot created by Sabita. "It was trying, turbulent, walking on eggshells," Conkle says.

"The thing that had drawn us so close, the thing that had started out like playing together, was now comprised of resentment and screaming matches," Evans says. "And it wasn't fun anymore. In fact it really blew."

"A week and a half before opening, the show was nowhere," Conkle says. Then, in the middle of rehearsing a particularly chaotic scene, Evans twisted her ankle. "She sat down, and her ankle was bent sideways. And she's like, 'I'm OK, I can rehearse.' And we're like, 'Um...'"

Conkle took her to the emergency room. Her ankle was broken in three places. The show was canceled.

"I had six weeks in bed to come to understand that not only did I not have an understudy, I didn't want one," Evans says. "I didn't want the show to go on without me. I began to see how selfishly tied I was to Nomenil. I didn't like my agenda of self-aggrandizement. There is nothing like not being able to walk to make you realize that you have been walking in the wrong direction."

She left Nomenil and tried acting around town on her own, but a sore ankle was the least of her problems. "I didn't believe I had any talent, [I was] getting panic attacks before going onstage for a performance. I began to get paranoid, thinking directors surely wished they had never cast me. Thank God I realized that this was not OK." So she quit the theater, returned to her hometown, Nashville, and enrolled at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

Conkle tried to press on without Evans, mounting a confessional piece about gay men's sexuality called Faggot Bunny Daddy in 2001. He describes it as tame. "I think I just felt afraid," he says. "Love Pollution was this huge thing, it was everything, but a disaster waiting to happen. I really thought, Do I want to keep doing this? I contemplated jumping in front of the el a couple times. I mean, here's this thing, theater, that I feel is the thing I'm here on this planet to do....I've been working retail and all these shit jobs, and then the thing I love isn't working at all."

Then last year Conkle picked up a copy of Pushin' Up Roses. "I wanted to remember what Nomenil was. And I read it and I thought, This is something."

The production he threw together was nearly another disaster. "Usually Nomenil rehearsals are these love fests. And this just wasn't that." The two lead actors had huge personality conflicts. The cast never jelled. "And I was trying everything. Like I'd sit them all down and say, 'OK, let's all try to concentrate on the positives here.' And then they'd be like, 'This bullshit doesn't work for me!'" Even the management at Frankie J's, which runs both the theater where the play was performed and the restaurant below, seemed to be working against Conkle. Three Dollar Bill provided live--and loud--musical accompaniment for the show. "I love Frankie J's, but they kept telling us to be quiet. They were like, 'You gotta play it really softly.' It's a punk rock band, you can't play it softly. But we did. That didn't work."

Several hundred miles away, Evans was finishing her first year of graduate school. As a final project she mounted a performance piece about "sex, God(s), and dentists." She realized that she wants a career in social activism. "When I graduate the social justice work I will do will be directly facilitated through my work as an artist," she says. "Art at its best can be an amazing forum for social change. Art has the power and influence to change the world if we let it."

Conkle has been rewriting Love Pollution for the past three years. He's done some informal readings of the script and reworked parts he hated. This spring he was asked if he might want to do a full production of the show--the first ever--for the 2003 Rhinoceros Theater Festival. He accepted, even after his unhappy remounting of Pushin' Up Roses and in spite of all the trauma associated with Nomenil's first attempt.

"So much energy went into its creation," he says. "And I think the time is right for the show. We're living in such a complacent time. We need palatable subversiveness. The show just says, Stop letting the ideologues run the world and be who you really are."

He's spent the last few months in his living room, cajoling actors who for the most part have never heard of Nomenil. His Sally stopped showing up for rehearsals and was replaced (by a man, Joshua Middleton) three weeks before opening. And Conkle is still wondering how well his brand of chaos will thrive in the Cultural Center.

Evans has no regrets about not being part of this production. "I feel sorry for him because I know how much work it is," she says. "It's a huge show. But I don't want to be doing that now. I made a choice to leave, and I feel secure in that choice." She will, however, return to Chicago in mid-October to see Conkle's new vision of their old work: "I feel excited that it's being done, that it's not in a drawer anymore."

Although Conkle has consulted with Evans on the phone several times about the show, he feels her absence.

"On one hand, I'm glad she's not here," he says. "We just weren't getting along at all. We couldn't have done it together. But it's really sad and painful for me. I wish she were a part of it, I wish she were here. Courtney and I just have this incredible relationship, the way we work together is really out of this world, and I have to try to manufacture that by myself."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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