Failed Utopias | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Failed Utopias

Walkabout Theater's multimedia exploration of perfect societies might lead you to conclude there's no such thing.

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"Impossible Cities: A Utopian Experiment" | Walkabout Theater Company

WHEN Through 1/27: Thu-Sat 8 PM (gallery opens 7:30 PM, music at 9:20 PM Fri-Sat)

WHERE Peter Jones Gallery, 1806 W. Cuyler

PRICE $15

INFO 312-458-0566

There are as many possible utopias as there are people to think them up. That much is obvious from Walkabout Theater Company's inclusive, thought-provoking, but flawed "Impossible Cities: A Utopian Experiment," a multimedia event that incorporates the work of 15 visual artists, 5 theater types, and, every Friday and Saturday, a different musician or band. In fact, the exhibit at Peter Jones Gallery encourages DIY utopias. You can draw your own utopian skyline on a communal scroll or color Sir Thomas More's schematic of the island of Utopia, then deposit your work in a box with other people's scribblings. The one on top when I looked had a big X over the entire picture.

Of course while envisioning utopia may be relatively easy, creating a stable utopian community is probably impossible. That's pretty much the point of the four theater pieces at the core of the show, curated and directed by Redmoon's Seth Bockley, who also participated. But if the vision part is so easy, how come not one of the five artists came up with his or her own? Each work can be charming, humorous, or informative at times, but the utopias discussed are all borrowed. Perhaps that's why the evening feels derivative and flat, wistful rather than passionate.

Jessica Hudson's solo piece Invisible Cities, whose four segments are interspersed throughout the evening, is an adaptation of Italo Calvino's 1972 book describing 55 towns in fanciful terms. In one that Hudson illustrates by weaving cat's cradles, relationships are represented by strings—which outlast the structures they connect, creating a spiderweb city. But the place that dominates Hudson's piece is a recurring utopia that disappears whenever she tries to approach it. With her ever-present suitcase and awkward perches around the stage, Hudson is a tragicomic figure doomed to wander in search of her home.

Ira S. Murfin also relies on the thinking of a 20th-century visionary—in this case, Paolo Soleri, who began building the Arcosanti community in central Arizona in 1970. Devoted to Soleri's principles of "arcology," which attempt to reconcile architecture and ecology, the place is still under construction. Murfin's monologue, Arcosanti as Intent, is long and circuitous without any real payoff: his experiences there as a resident and tour guide make the place sound like any postcollegiate community. Maybe that's his point, but at any rate the piece comes alive only when Murfin gets up and dances at the end.

Other performers look to utopian movements of the more distant past. In a clever "cooking" demonstration Neo-Futurist Chloe Johnston and Seth Zurer discuss Iowa's Amana colonies, begun in 1855, and the short-lived Jewish back-to-the-land settlement of Clarion, started in 1911 in Utah. Johnston claims it was a sign that she happened upon an Amana cookbook in an Evanston bookstore, but by the end of her bit she admits she's failed to discover the community's essence: all she's created from the recipes is a bleak landscape dominated by a Mr. Potato Head—an apparent stand-in for Amana founder Christian Metz. That's not enough to support her half of the collaboration with Zurer, who has a close connection to Clarion: his 94-year-old grandmother was born there. Though he admits that the noodle kugel he quasi assembles onstage might never have been made under utopian conditions, his obvious concern for the community and the mystery of how it survived for even a few years gives his musings warmth. And the two performers create resonant stage effects, Zurer with salt, Johnston with flour.

Bockley's Nauvoo, devoted to the two utopian settlements in that western Illinois town, is the best-developed piece of the evening. Bockley portrays both Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Etienne Cabet, the leader of the Icarian movement, who settled in Nauvoo with his followers a few years after Smith was killed by a mob. Bockley makes each character distinct, depicting Smith as an ambitious charlatan who believed, or pretended to believe, in magic objects (at 21 Smith was convicted of duping people with "peep stones" that supposedly uncovered buried treasure). Even more entertaining is his characterization of Cabet, whose idealistic vision is symbolized by wires he strings in grids across the stage. Bockley's gruesome, addled grin as Cabet is worth the price of admission and Cabet's exit is poignant and funny.

Maybe the writer-performers did so much research on utopias, all of them failed or chimerical, that they couldn't muster the energy to even think about one of their own. The only highly personal vision in evidence was that of the musician who performed afterward: Lord of the Yum-Yum, a beatboxer (and grade-school teacher) in a ruffled tuxedo whose medleys incorporate the insights of his students ("When I see puke, I puke").

Despite the imagination that's gone into it, "Impossible Cities" seems sad and defeated. Much of the art in the gallery show acknowledges how distant we are today from former reformist movements, reprinting propaganda from the Russian and Chinese revolutions and representing utopias as mere tourist attractions. There's still plenty of inequality and injustice for idealists to rebel against, as Kaleen Enke's childlike paintings reveal: she depicts military tanks and oil wells in Operation Heaven. But another work—Megan Pahmier's impressively detailed Mend, made up of stretched threads and intricate drawings—seems more to the point: apparently all we can hope for today is piecing the same old world back together over and over again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephan Mazurek.

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