For Doorika's first two productions in Chicago, North of the Lake and In a Way It Was a Crisis, this ensemble created for itself two beautifully enigmatic scripts that resisted all attempts at interpretation yet offered up endless resonant layers of association. Though the performances and staging were first-rate, the texts were sublime.
For its third original theater piece Doorika has tried a somewhat different approach. As Fathom Blazer opens, the performers seem to want to convince us that there will be no formal text performed at all.
That informality is in stark contrast to Doorika's space: a beautifully restored industrial loft, utterly regular and geometrical. At one end of the room are placed 40 or so mismatched chairs, all painted pure white, in two neat rows. Visually they're stunning, as if they had appeared out of a dream--especially since everything else in this vaulted room is lost in the shadows.
The performance begins when a rather sad-looking man (Will Wright) who has been sitting in the rafters playing music for the audience picks up a microphone and, as if he had nothing better to do, tells a bad joke. Then the performers enter one by one in formal dress, introduce themselves, and share brief anecdotes about their families, spoken colloquially and probably spontaneously. The stories are generally unremarkable, centering around typical childhood anxieties, and create a kind of forced intimacy with the audience.
Then the director (Erika Yeomans) enters and hands each of the six performers what appears to be a script. They all sit on the floor and, devoid of any personal investment, begin to read. The text sounds like cuttings from transcripts of their rehearsals, discussing what they want to do, how they want to do it, and how confused they are by the whole project. Most of the material revolves around telling the story of a first kiss, although one actor talks instead about his "first epileptic seizure." The director responds, "You played that in the dark. Was that a choice?"
Curiously this section has not been heightened for humor or irony, though the idea itself seems inherently comic. In fact the performers don't seem to acknowledge the audience at all; I was left uncertain about where this piece was headed. The end of this section marks the end of a kind of introduction to the piece, as if the performers had presented themselves and given us a glimpse of their working method, all in a kind of deadpan, nonperformative way. Fathom Blazer seems to aim at exploring the candid presence of the performers themselves.
At this point the piece changes gears drastically, and for the rest of the evening it's highly styled, carefully scripted, and often intentionally overacted. First we see three men (Casey David Spooner, Robbie Hungerford, and John William Dooley) dressed in near-fluorescent colors dancing, like three clumsy Graces, with huge blocks of wood glued to their boots. Then a southern bride (Kelly Anchors) appears in a wedding dress and combat boots, remembering her mother who used to "embalm herself" before bed with face cream. Next we find ourselves in a Nazi war room in a scene that unfortunately I couldn't understand because of the actors' accents, the quickness of their speech, and the way their words were lost in the large room. Finally the company enacts an elaborate science-fiction fantasy about a woman in a futuristic society who is discovered to be hoarding and selling water, a scarce resource.
All of these sections are performed with all-out conviction by the talented cast, which also includes Ethan Smeltzer and Lisa Kathryn Perry. Spooner's sensibility seems particularly suited to this material: he navigates the sudden shifts and turns with grace, agility, and humor. But I had a difficult time finding an intuitive or intellectual through line to connect these disjointed scenes. This time Doorika's intentional lack of continuity seemed merely puzzling. And the off-the-cuff opening made the mental gymnastics required to properly read the rest somewhat unexpected. It's as if the show's master narrative, the core of ideas and images out of which the piece was generated, has not been brought into clear enough focus.
Despite this confusion, Fathom Blazer is a visual delight. Yeomans's staging is truly inspired--she continually redefines her playing space, creating scenes in the most unexpected places. The scene in the Nazi war room is particularly memorable, as it is played offstage right and can only be glimpsed through a glass door. Despite Yeomans's visual ingenuity, the stage images seem completely natural and unforced. She doesn't seem to invent her stage but instead discovers exactly where everything should be.
Fathom Blazer does not quite cohere. But as always Doorika has created for itself some of the most challenging work you'll see on any Chicago stage. It's allowed to be less than brilliant for once.