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Cry of Pain, Shout of Laughter

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ZERO POSITIVE

Cloud 42

at the Theatre Building

The title of Harry Kondoleon's haunting, beautiful, and often brilliant Zero Positive is based on a mistake: "zero positive" are the words Himmer Blank, a 30-ish gay man, thinks he hears when he's informed that he's seropositive--that is, infected with the HIV virus thought to cause AIDS. "Zero positive?" he responds to his friend Samantha, a heterosexual woman who also took the blood test--and got the same results. "The zero for the infinite nothingness and the plus sign like a cross on a grave."

Maybe Himmer's reaction is a denial mechanism; maybe it's a distracted mistake. He certainly has enough on his mind. His mother has just died after a long illness and a horror-show marriage; his father, the poet Jacob Blank, has retreated silently into a fantasized past in which he is an adulterous newlywed--free of such baggage as a gay son and a marriage gone wrong. Himmer's two closest companions, Samantha and a gay man named Prentice, are beset by romantic turmoil--Samantha's lover has turned out to be married (just like all the others before him), Prentice's is an abusive con man. Now come the test results--"a death sentence" in 1987, when the play takes place (and was written). The medical diagnosis only confirms in physical fact Himmer's sense that any action is futile to effect change in a world that's breaking down. When life is, well, zero positive, all you can do is laugh. And grieve. At the same time.

Himmer and his extended family laugh and grieve a great deal. So does the audience--for Zero Positive more than lives up to its billing as "a mortal comedy." Kondoleon has mined a startling vein of humor in his grim situation; his characters are witty and expressive, and their dialogue is peppered with wry epigrams, caustic observations, and hilarious jokes whose complete unpredictability derives from the mercurial and troubled people who speak them and the deadly circumstances under which they live.

Kondoleon's jarring juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy reaches its apex in the second act, when Himmer mounts a vanity production of a play his mother had written 50 years earlier; he discovered it only after her death. The play, which is very bad, is a verse tragedy--blank verse, of course--called The Ruins of Athens; it tells of a melancholy prince who commits suicide Socrates-style by drinking hemlock in despair over his father's madness, the plague that is killing all his friends, and the moral collapse of a city-state where the ideals of freedom and democracy have given way to corrupt autocracy, pervasive selfishness, and widespread loss of faith. The play's the thing wherein Kondoleon captures his characters' conscience; as the amateur production--presented in the health clinic to which Himmer, Samantha, Jacob, and Himmer's wrist-slitting straight actor friend Patrick have been confined--comes to a close, the poison draught is indeed imbibed, though with different results than Himmer had intended. There's no such easy or noble way out for him. "So I fancy my Muse says, when I wish to die: / Oh no, Oh no, we are not yet friends enough," says the quotation from poet Stevie Smith that Kondoleon offers as part of a program note.

A very literary work, Zero Positive reflects such wide-ranging influences as Smith, Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Jean Giraudoux, Anton Chekhov, and Henry Miller: when Jacob is introduced to Himmer's benefactor, a poor little rich girl named Debbie Fine, he courts her with a lyrical pornographic ode. More vulgar allusions crop up as well, in manic musical-revue routines that Patrick performs in the Blanks' plush but tatty sitting room, for example, and in the absurdly campy Ruins of Athens performance, in which a wheelchair serves as a horse-drawn chariot and an operating table becomes a goddess's altar. These wildly eclectic elements convincingly characterize the 80s urbanites who populate the play; they also color Kondoleon's portrait of a world flooded with information yet morally adrift and searching for purpose. "I just don't want to come on with very little to say and then go off," says Patrick, speaking of his acting career but also his and his friends' lives. "I want to know when I go off it makes sense that I came on in the first place."

Unapologetically preachy and prophetic, Zero Positive needs a production that exposes the human drama at its core. It gets it in its Chicago premiere by Cloud 42, gorgeously acted under Patrick Trettenero's direction. Trettenero's eye for gestural and visual detail has never been keener, nor has his witty musical ear. (The preshow sound track, a selection of unorthodox renditions of sentimental standards ranging from Ray Charles's "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" to Jonathan and Darlene Edwards's mock-awful "You Belong to Me," is a marvelous complement to the quirky script.) Nathan Rankin's handsome, droll, and desperate Himmer, Cynthia Marie's darkly radiant Samantha, Larry Neumann Jr.'s tautly anxious Prentice, Marc Silvia's high-strung Patrick, Fran Martone's neurotic and nourishing Debbie, and Jordan Teplitz's oddly angelic Jacob chart the ridiculous and sublime extremes of their characters without a false note. In the first act especially, framed by Brian Traynor's detailed set, illuminated by Ken Moore's seemingly natural lighting, and dressed in Sraa Davidson's unerringly right costumes, the actors employ perfectly thought out body language to compose stage picture after stage picture that could have come from the brush of a master painter. "Portrait of a Generation," the series of images could be called--a generation facing death at an absurdly early age with a paralyzing overload of self-awareness. With a cry of pain, a shout of laughter, and a silent sigh of reflection, Zero Positive helps inform that self-awareness with understanding.

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