Chaos | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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CHAOS

Lifeline Theatre

I'm not going to attempt an explanation of the theory of chaos here, since I'm only up to page 42 in the book I've been reading about it. But as near as I can tell it boils down to this: you're never going to understand the physical world if you insist on picking out the choice bits and ignoring what sticks to your fingers. Traditional science isolates phenomena, measures them, and throws out variations, looking for the mean--the pure, neat, linear result. Chaotic science acknowledges that reality's actually a mess of interactions where the random, the erratic, the unstable, and the apparently trivial may not only signify but point to a harmony more profound than anything dreamed of in your philosophy, Aristotle.

The theory of chaos values inclusion over exclusion. Wholeness over dissection. Dynamics over stasis. The paradoxical over the linear. It's science finally discovering what Walt Whitman, William Blake, Meister Eckehart, and the Buddha knew all along.

But what it's got to do with the Lifeline show called Chaos, I can't exactly say. Written by the quartet of Christina Calvit, Louise Freistadt, John Szostek, and Steve Totland, Chaos seems to consider itself a theatrical realization of ideas associated with chaos theory; I'd be more inclined to think of it as a theatrical realization of certain warm-and-runny, sweetly mystical feelings that ooze around that theory.

The fact is, you don't need even 42 pages of chaos ed to enjoy Chaos. To be charmed by it. Its own pretensions notwithstanding, this show owes about as much to The Wizard of Oz as it does to anybody's new physics.

Which is quite a bit, really. Like Oz, Chaos centers on a quest: an apprentice alchemist, Axel, heads out over the sea and under the earth to find the philosophers' stone. Like Dorothy in Oz, he encounters various helpers and adversaries along the way--his own versions of Tin Men and flying monkeys--each of whom brings him another step down a path that, oddly enough, leads home.

Even the skills Axel acquires on his journey are the same as those Dorothy picks up in Oz. Where Dorothy finds courage in the Cowardly Lion, a heart in the hollow Tin Man, a brain in the straw-headed Scarecrow, and a home inside her lonely self, so he discovers "guts, heart, head," and the philosophers' stone itself in places both far away and unexpectedly near.

The point here isn't that Chaos apes Oz. It truly doesn't. Oz never opened with a cunningly beautiful dance of the spheres, as Chaos does. Oz never included a hilarious visit to Lethe, where a race of balloon people take a literally airheaded approach to life; or to a boomtown called Cadmus (look it up), where Axel gets a fast lesson in voodoo economics. Oz never allowed as how sex can be a means to enlightenment. And though there's a character in one of the later books who changes genders, Oz never gave Dorothy a mirror image comparable to Axel's Vajra (look that up, too)--a warrior with a few mystical lessons of her own to learn.

No, the point isn't that Chaos apes Oz, but that both works express a mythic pattern of seeking, discovery, and transformation--of birth, death, and rebirth--that repeats itself not only in stories from Gilgamesh to Candide, but in human consciousness and the very mess of nature. The folks behind Chaos know this. In fact, they know it somewhat too well--which is why they've sunk the piece in references to chaos theory and ostentatious bits from their other great inspiration, mythologist Joseph Campbell. The worst parts of Chaos are the ones where the authors and ensemble pass up the story in favor of footnoting it. If I were inclined to Zen name-dropping, I'd say this show had the stink of satori about it.

Still, I've smelled worse, and most of Chaos smells positively good. The costumes and props by an entity called U-TATE are consistently witty and right, literally making passages like the dance of the spheres work. Joseph Cerqua's sound design is New Agey without being sodden.

And the ensemble is ruthlessly endearing. I loved Jane Baxter Miller's small tour de force as both a doctor and the lawyer who's suing her; I loved Steve Totland's turn as an alchemist with Buddha nature; I even loved Stephanie Galfano's voracious appetite for stage focus. The woman's eyes practically fluoresce, whatever role she's playing.

Louise Freistadt offers an interesting lankiness as Vajra, and Gregg Mierow is a serviceable Axel--though the only really mystical question he inspired in me was, Why does every mythic hero have to be handsome?

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