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Decapitated Dancer

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ISADORA DUNCAN SLEEPS WITH THE RUSSIAN NAVY

Torso Theatre
at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Torso Theatre. Nice name. And so appropriate for the company performing Jeff Wanshel's Isadora Duncan Sleeps With the Russian Navy. 'Cause what's a torso, after all? It's that section of the body where you keep your heart, your lungs, your guts, your sex, your tits and ass--but not your brains. This Isadora trades heavily in all the things torsos possess, while somewhat too predictably lacking that essential something they don't.

Not that there isn't an attempt to compensate. Just as a legless man might take to locomoting with his arms, this Torso production tries to think by other means. The heart gives out with a certain amount of real feeling; the lungs, with a lot of noise. The guts supply pugnacity. The genitals--well, the usual. And the tits and ass, a vulgarity that can be made to look like irreverence. Taken together, these elements constitute an Attitude. Which isn't really the same thing as an Idea, but which feels satisfyingly assertive all the same.

This Attitude is brought to bear on the life and loves of Isadora Duncan, the legendary free spirit, whose own loosely draped torso danced its way across stages and beds on two continents. Of course, Duncan had a head, too--in which she formulated nothing less than a revolutionary new aesthetic for the dance. But that's not a major concern here. To the contrary, Duncan's actual achievements are treated as a kooky sort of beatnik thing she did between assignations. Her best thoughts get choked off at the neck, as it were, and she ends up coming across as a rebel without a concept. A crusading libido. A cross between Joan of Arc and Terry Southern's Candy.

Which is fine, I guess, as long as all we're after is a cartoon Isadora, good for laughs. But Wanshel's script pretends to a high seriousness as well. Isadora's story is counterpoised against the tale of a writer who's been assigned to work up a screenplay about her; boozy, filthy, hounded by self- loathing and by the philistine demands of the movie executives who've bought him, the writer begins to admire Isadora's integrity, her sense of the sacredness of art, her refusal to compromise. Before long, he's come to regard her as his saint and salvation. He even tries standing up to the movie execs.

Now I can see how all this may be Wanshel's way of making a point about the unequal war between art and commerce. Or about the politics of biography, and how a life like Isadora's may be written and rewritten and written again to satisfy the contending ulterior motives, vested interests, or plain-out neuroses of her biographers. I can see where the play may have been meant as a Rashomon-like satire of Hollywood revisionism, with the dancer's image changing focus every time it changes hands.

I've got to work real hard to see it that way, though--partly because Wanshel's writing isn't all that good, but mostly because Torso's production is so heavy-laden with Attitude. Ben Bodelson's so very busy trying to bowl us over with displays of directorial exuberance that he forgets to convey the playwright's intentions. Perhaps even to ask himself what they are. We get a clever, noisy sound design, full of aural jokes. We get an energetically overblown acting style, full of funny faces and silly gestures. We get an enormous amount of sexual tease--but no follow-through, interestingly enough: this is a surprisingly prudish production. We get tits and ass in the form of scattershot, infantile remarks about gay "fudgepackers" and "castrating bitches." We get practically everything, as I say, but real, analytical brains.

A particularly disappointing omission, inasmuch as it's obvious that Bodelson's got some. Enough, at the very least, to make Isadora diverting despite its pointlessness. There's a, well, breakneck energy to this show, which makes it fun to watch. And though most of the acting's goosed up to the point of hysteria, Cynthia Hewett manages to keep her comic head as Isadora, offering some rare and effective modulation. Bonnie Lucas, meanwhile, works well in the head-over-heels mode as various characters, including Isadora's Irish mom.

Torso's aggressively antic style reminds me of another headless ensemble--Theater Oobleck. Reminds me of it enough to make me wonder if there isn't some conscious emulation going on here. That wouldn't be bad at all; Oobleck's well worth imitating. Still, Oobleck's "headlessness" is of a completely different order from Torso's: an egalitarian rejection of directorial tyranny--not a rejection of analysis. Oobleck's comedy works precisely because it serves Oobleck's deep and careful thinking about issues in the world and in its plays. Bodelson and Torso are trying to do the comedy without doing the thinking. What they end up with, naturally enough, is a frantic but only sporadically entertaining mess.

IMPROVISATION, OR THE SHEPHERD'S CHAMELEON

Cesear's Forum
at the Playwrights' Center

Which is still something of an improvement over what a new company called Cesear's Forum ended up with in their production of Eugene Ionesco's little satire Improvisation, or The Shepherd's Chameleon.

If Torso's problem is that it has no use for ideas, this group's is that they have an idea they don't know how to use. Ionesco's script is a sophisticated attack on academic critics whose cool deconstructions of the theatrical process, he suggests, may not only subvert that process but kill the creative impulse itself and turn playwrights into trained monkeys, willing to dance to the next theory.

This argument probably had a lot of comic and polemical force when Ionesco first presented it in Paris, the home of deconstruction, 33 years ago. But it means almost nothing in 1989 Chicago, where the most influential critics aren't Derrida or Foucault but Siskel and Ebert. The truth is that criticism--especially theatrical criticism--is neither strong enough nor coherent enough here to make Ionesco's satire work. It just doesn't translate.

And neither does this production, with its collection of boot-camp actors pretending to a worldliness they don't possess. As a director, Greg Cesear makes the common mistake of thinking that an absurdist play is one where things don't have to make sense.

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