at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, through February 25
Bosco Goes Ape!
at the Organic Theater, through March 31
A fringe festival without risk is like dynamite without a fuse; no matter how dangerous it looks, its full potential will never be released. At Chicago's homegrown fringe festival, the Rhino in Winter, risk is almost unavoidable. Nearly everyone is messing around with theatrical form, and much of the work is untried--Bryn Magnus's The Julieannes, Theatre Oobleck's The Spy Was in Stitches and Danny and His Things in a Box, James Schneider's Clowns, Goddesses and Tough Guys. Even what's been tried is dangerous: Shea Nangle's hour-long Bleeding Clear ran in Chicago for several weeks last year, but it's so disturbing that at least one audience member plugged his ears during the performance. The conventional stuff itself is disaster prone; the Rhino's biggest draw, Beau O'Reilly's well-seasoned The Third Degrees of J.O. Breeze, is a two-hour play in which people do little but sit around a table and talk.
Festival organizer O'Reilly says he set out to create a volatile mix. He booked several shows sight unseen, including the diciest Rhino entry, Klangbuhne Guricht, a two-year-old German absurdist music theater group that had never performed outside the former Eastern bloc. Advance promotional materials were in German or shattered English; no one at the festival had any idea what the company actually did onstage. "They could well be awful," one festival insider confessed.
Quite the opposite. Klangbuhne Guricht may look like parodies of German angst-ridden pretension, with their black clothing, disheveled hair, severe expressions, and austere aesthetic. But the group transforms an exhausted form--spoken text alongside free-form jazz--into a cunning, continually surprising sonic adventure. Last weekend they performed the world premiere of That's What I Feared, based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges. This weekend they'll conclude with an older work, Different Pieces of Furniture, incorporating three texts by French absurdist Jean Tardieu.
As a prelude to That's What I Feared on opening night, saxophonist Gert Anklam performed a solo excerpt from his evening-length work Soundlights (the piece was unfortunately cut on the second night). It begins with a long droning tone somewhere in the instrument's middle range. Then Anklam flips quickly to standard intervals--octaves, thirds, fifths--yet always returns to the drone, never seeming to take a breath. After a minute or two of uninterrupted playing, I expected him to collapse from lack of air. But in fact he's able to inhale through his nose while exhaling into his saxophone. During his 15-minute performance he never needed to stop for breath.
Anklam's piece moves forward with an incremental urgency. He begins pressing keys that leave the pitch of his drone unaltered but give the tone a pulse. Soon the intervals become more unpredictable. After perhaps five minutes, he gradually stops playing the drone, but its pulse continues in gentle cascades. A 12-tone scale segues into a pentatonic scale and back again; 16th-note runs dissolve into triplets. The accumulated complexity builds to a dazzling finale in which Anklam's erratic arpeggios run so rapidly up and down the entire range of his saxophone that he seems to be playing all its notes at once.
Anklam explains that his introductory composition is meant to "open the minds" of the audience (a series of quasi-fractal, quasi-fauvist psychedelic abstractions projected onto him during the performance enhance the mind-loosening effect). Such openness is essential to appreciate That's What I Feared, for its subtle blendings and stark collisions of sound and text work on a deeply intuitive level. Ralf Wendt recites Borges's "August Twenty-Fifth, Nineteen Eighty-three" in mellifluous German. In the story, translated into English in the program, Borges checks into a hotel to find that he's already checked in--and is in fact waiting for himself in room 19. Anklam and Bernd Born accompany on baritone saxophones while Andreas Hoge plays a guitar wired to an electronic sampler. But to separate the text from its accompaniment is a facile oversimplification; Wendt's voice is actually a fourth musical instrument, and the music proceeds with its own narrative. Paradoxically, not knowing German puts an audience member at an advantage; Borges's text then cannot define "the meaning" of the piece, as it might if delivered in English. Rather, the musical and vocal inflections combine to create an emotionally resonant soundscape.
Klangbuhne Guricht's genius lies in the orchestration of noise--musical and otherwise. Like French-born, California-based performance musician Laetitia Sonami, they stir together clangs, whispers, gushes, honks, and a dozen other acoustical events. At the same time they're not afraid of conventional harmonics or traditional chord progressions, which makes their repeated forays into atonality all the more striking. Even in the most cacophonous moments, this sonic jumble has an underlying order. No matter how cluttered the soundscape, it always seems to be heading somewhere.
Klangbuhne Guricht's appearance at the Lunar Cabaret inaugurates a series of international exchanges between Chicago and Germany. Next month, the Lunar's O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus will travel to Berlin to perform three original works. In September, several Chicago percussionists will link up with the Middle German Saxophone Quartet, of which Anklam and Born are members, for an appearance at the renowned Hallische Musiktage festival in Berlin. They also plan to perform at the Lunar in the spring of 1997. With the recent demise of the Chicago International Theater Festival, such edgy transatlantic cross-fertilizations are more urgently needed than ever.
Last summer's 15-day Chicago Fringe Festival, despite its international scope, offered few edgy choices; perhaps festival producers John Mills and James Ellis were playing it safe to guarantee that the festival would have a second incarnation. One great exception was Jonathan Kay and his marvelously dangerous Fool, in which he played a modern-day Shakespearean clown appearing before an audience without a moment of prepared material or a thought in his head. "Only a fool would do that," he explained to me after the show.
A mere handful of people witnessed Kay's theatrical tightrope act. The same was true of the Fringe Festival's other great risk taker, New York's Danny Lord. His rakish nouveau-vaudeville routines push the limits of the audience's goodwill. Lord's skills as a clown and magician have been expertly honed over nearly 20 years with troupes all over the world, but his mischievous attacks on the audience are all his own. He simply delights in ridiculing us, constantly aping our amazement at his collection of dime-store magic tricks. When he dragged me up onstage opening night, he not only put a cigarette through my sport coat and knocked a lens out of my glasses (magically restoring them to their former conditions, of course) but persisted in making fun of my high-pitched laugh. He's a court jester mocking a group of fools paying for the privilege. Those who can't laugh at themselves will have a miserable time.
In his return engagement at the Organic Theater, Bosco Goes Ape!, Lord performs most of the material from his appearance last summer. But every moment is fresh and inventive. And his new material is his most delightful and dangerous. For example, the second act opens with Lord's wife and costar, Priscilla B-Light, in a sky-high orange bouffant, gargantuan fat suit, and pink fuzzy slippers trying to find a seat in the audience, shoving her padded ass in people's faces in the process. When she sees a cream pie onstage, she waddles up to it and, perhaps from sheer excitement, collapses into an inert pile. Lord enters, "discovers" this Day-Glo beached whale, kicks her once or twice, drags her offstage, picks up the pie, and comes looking for a target in the audience. And on opening night, at least, he made good on his threat.
Plans are under way for a second Fringe Festival this summer. The fact that Mills has primed the pump with Lord's devilish effrontery is a good sign. Maybe his 1996 festival will offer as many risks as sure things.