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Good Things in Small Spaces

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Rock and Roll: Impatience

Lucky Pierre

at the Athenaeum Theatre

Windows Server 2003/Active Directory Infrastructure

DOG

at the Athenaeum Theatre

The Surrender Office

Mathew Wilson

at the Athenaeum Theatre

When uptown presenters showcase downtown performers, the results usually resemble the faux boho of Rent, exuding the odor of investors' money rather than artists' sweat. But Performing Arts Chicago's second annual PAC/edge Festival, a five-week affair that includes the city's most progressive performing artists, still smells of little but perspiration--or stale urine in the case of Sandra Binion's lyrical video installation, Watercloset(s), in the Athenaeum Theatre's second-floor restrooms. Though Performing Arts Chicago executive director Susan Lipman generally imports international acts to upscale venues, she knows the fringe scene intimately enough to construct a festival around its stalwarts.

This year PAC has taken over the Athenaeum completely, occupying not only the four studio theaters and massive main stage but its balcony lobby, where Dexter Bullard remounts his philosophical conundrum In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, and various other odd corners. Dancer Asimina Chremos presents an enigmatic piece in a tiny basement dressing room (maximum audience: five). Mathew Wilson, whose droll public spectacles have always unfolded with little or no prior notice, will spend five weekends in the coat-check room.

Considering the large number of performers watching their colleagues' work on opening weekend, cross-pollination may be the festival's most important legacy. Indeed, PAC needs to find a way to draw a bigger audience to this unglamorous spot. Although box-office receipts were reportedly better than last year's miserable 10 percent of capacity on opening weekend, shows with at least two-thirds of their seats empty were the rule. As one person wrote on a section of stairwell wall reserved for audience comments: "10:55. Where is everybody?"

An exception was Lucky Pierre's Rock and Roll: Impatience, a 37-minute work in progress presented at 4:30 on Saturday afternoon (only one show remains, this Saturday). The packed house was a testament to Lucky Pierre's historic daring and sheer likability. Still, at this point Rock and Roll: Impatience is a spotty affair that lurches between satisfying impenetrability and disappointing literalness. The Lucky Pierres have previously approached pop culture from oblique angles, but here they too often look their subject dead in the face, holding wooden cutouts of guitars and lining up across the stage to bash along to AC/DC's "Back in Black." Though characteristically charming and cheeky, these sections offer little to the imagination.

When Lucky Pierre veers far afield, however, the results are captivating. The five stone-faced pranksters open their piece with an exquisitely uninteresting "interview" between a video monitor displaying words and an unimaginative respondent surrounded by four bored colleagues. Somehow the piece's sung "guitar solos," Windows Office clip art, philosophical definitions of nature, and flashes of human mortality evolve into a suggestive if fragmentary whole. And while the company's personnel have changed over the years, it's always been committed to antiacting--to simply performing tasks or reading words like plumbers matter-of-factly fixing leaky pipes. Here the performers seem more present than ever, as though they'd ripped away every last vestige of performative veneer. Since it seems they've assembled merely to present their material, it's fitting that they're often seated behind a long conference table as though called to present testimony. The material may be perplexing, evocative, or mundane, but the performers remain utterly exposed, never concealing their screwups or moments of boredom--which gives this potentially academic work a bumbling human warmth.

DOG, which debuted at last year's PAC/edge, is every bit as subtle and sophisticated as Lucky Pierre. But while Lucky Pierre seems content to do little or nothing onstage, here DOG exhibits a maniacal need to entertain--even when nothing entertaining is at hand. In Windows Server 2003/Active Directory Infrastructure the five performers spend most of their time trying to charm the audience into not noticing that they have little to do, scurrying about, each convinced that he or she should be over here instead of over there. More often than not they end up in a line downstage, fidgeting nervously, self-conscious grins plastered on their faces. A nightmarish cloud of anxiety hangs over the show: it's as if the group spends the hour gearing up for a performance that somebody's forgotten to script.

The humor that results, built around a center left intentionally empty, was the hallmark of DOG's debut piece, Interference, as it was of the group's predecessor, the late Cook County Theater Department. Not surprisingly, Windows Server 2003 is most satisfying when it seems least concerned with its purported subject: an actual Microsoft program, Active Directory, that allows a network of computers to communicate with one another. What matters is that five unsettled and unsettling people in a tiny space, each of whom seems to know the others inside out but is attempting to hide some unknown secret, are interacting with the explosive, unforced joy of a virtuoso clown routine. Director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig coaxes such fine-tuned performances from her cast that you'd swear this ensemble had been together for decades.

But like Rock and Roll: Impatience, this show falters when it takes a literal approach. As a program note explains, the piece is an attempt to translate the computer program into theatrical form--but too often there's a one-to-one correspondence between the program and an onstage line or gesture. In Active Directory each bit of created information must have a unique name, for example. So when one actor names an event that just happened--"Vicki left"--another actor must "approve" this appellation. If Vicki leaves again, the event must be described in different words for the description to be approved. Moreover, each named event must be tied to a particular fraction of a second, frozen on a digital clock projected onto the stage, or it must be repeated.

Much of the piece unfolds in similarly literal fashion, resulting in abundant humor but a restricted metaphorical space. Windows Server 2003 doesn't give the mind much room to wander, pinning down meaning rather than opening it up. Though this skilled ensemble is enjoyable in itself, the evening promises more than it delivers.

While others run about onstage or from stage to stage, Mathew Wilson sits behind a massive wooden desk for three hours a night, shoehorned into a tiny space. In The Surrender Office, marked only by an engraved plastic sign mounted outside the coat-check door, he offers "one-on-one consultation regarding the client's need to surrender to any person, object or idea." If a deal can be struck and a contract is signed, Wilson will perform an act of surrender on the client's behalf at an agreed upon time, "wielding a large white flag and a noble demeanor." He'll also check your coat.

His handsomely decorated yet absurdly small and crowded office is adorned with four posters displaying Surrender International's pilfered slogans: "The real thing," "Everywhere you want to be," "Priceless," and "One investor at a time." Although anyone who can't rent a better office warrants skepticism, Wilson reassures those wary of his services that he's "a professional." A massive desk lamp shields him almost entirely from the client, who's left to contemplate a framed photograph of the professional surrenderer planting his flag atop a hill.

Wilson said beforehand that his goal was to remain "earnest in the face of the ridiculous." Yet his task can be tinged with profundity, as he discovered on opening night: of the three clients who signed contracts, one asked him to surrender to "the unresolvable complexities of my relationship with my late wife." Wilson admits that in this piece he's a cross between a two-bit private eye and a third-rate psychoanalyst, yet his symbolic act has the potential to yield genuine results.

I realized during my consultation that it was time for me to surrender to Faustus, a stray I took in a year and a half ago despite my general dislike of dogs. I've spent the time since trying to train every doglike trait out of him--his insistence on being involved in everything I do, his unrestrainable hysteria every time I walk into my apartment. With Wilson's prodding, I realized that I must give up to my pet, and my contract stipulates that I bring Faustus to Grant Park on an upcoming Saturday, when Wilson will stand before him with his massive white flag for half an hour. And perhaps then I'll be at peace in my home.

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