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Bizarre and Logical


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Katherine Chronis and Joan Dickinson

at Link's Hall

January 22 and 23

Imagine, if you will, a very, very tall woman hanging by her arms from the ceiling. But then you're not so sure it's a woman. It could be a mannequin or a very big doll. She's very still, seems about 20 feet tall, and wears a long white dress. Her hair is tousled, Medusa-like.

Now imagine a tall, thin, dark fellow (Otto Stecchinelli) who sets a teakettle to boil on a burner stage left. This will naturally take a few minutes. In the meantime you're just sitting there in the semidark waiting. The only sounds are something on tape like the shuffling of a dog or human moving about a room.

Just as you're thinking the wait's kind of long, you notice that the very tall woman is moving now and again. With what looks like great labor, she unhooks her arm from the ceiling and brings it inside her dress. She could just be scratching for all you know. Then she moves the other arm and tucks it inside her clothes.

But wait, something's going on inside that long white smock. Her hands are really moving around in there. And what's that--that stuff leaking out from under the dress and onto the floor? Sand? Salt? It's salt. She's a pillar of salt.

And then the water's boiling, and the fellow's pouring it into a teacup on a little stand right in front of the tall woman. And just then, ? and the Mysterians start blasting "96 Tears" over the speakers, and a very sober cutout of Emily Dickinson drops from the ceiling. From it dangles a tea bag, which is expertly dropped into the cup.

That's the first part of Joan Dickinson's Black Cake, a visually rich, perplexing performance that plays with real time, a priori assumptions, the politics of women's roles, and the constant presence of absurdity. A master of the narrative collage, Dickinson layers images and objects in a bizarre yet logical manner. At first her work may seem all wacky juxtapositions--wow, Emily Dickinson and ? and the Mysterians!--but nothing here is accidental or arbitrary. Her images are haunting; her politics, radical but disarming.

The second part of Black Cake--a much more irreverent section in which Dickinson wears a magnificent headdress that incorporates a tiny stage labeled the "Rain Forest Theater," large green leaves, a tight miniskirt, black tights, and sequined platform shoes--for all its casual tone and humor is darker than the first. On the face of it a rather silly look at "notable American women with three names" (Louisa May Alcott, Mary Tyler Moore, etc), the piece actually exposes the scarcity of genuine role models for women. Performing in French and English, Dickinson uses cutouts of the women (held by little sticks, they almost look like lollipops) to show them off. Not coincidentally, the women do not appear on the stage of the Rain Forest Theater on Dickinson's head but are held right in front of her bosom.

Although Black Cake is certainly compelling and fun and Dickinson is charming, the piece lacks a substantial ending. Awkwardly, Dickinson had to signal the audience that Black Cake was over. Still, she continues to produce some of the most original work in the city.

Appearing with Dickinson was Katherine Chronis performing Concussive Diatribes, three short monologues. The first, "T.V. Traxx" by Joe Larocca, offers a rush of ostensibly absurd headlines. Unfortunately, the absurdity of real-life headlines far outdoes anything Larocca can come up with, and Chronis is too awkward a performer to rise above the writing.

The other two pieces, "Ice" and "Fractured," are Chronis originals. "Ice," about a woman deliberately seeking angst in order to be an artist, is droll and entertaining but rarely anything more. "Fractured" is so short and undeveloped as to be entirely forgettable.

More problematic than the writing, however, was Chronis's performance. When the audience laughed, it seemed to throw off her timing. She stepped on her lines and bungled transitions. Pacing from one end of the stage to the other, sometimes picking up a cigarette, then setting it down without lighting it, then picking it up again absentmindedly, she seemed aimless and nervous.

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

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