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History of the World, Revised

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ALE

Comediants

at Park West

I'LL GO ON

Gate Theatre Dublin

at Royal-George Theatre

At the end of Ale, a little man wearing an undersized crown comes out and orders the audience to leave the theater. When nobody budges, he screams for help--and from under a backdrop a man lurches wielding a gigantic hammer. When he gets nowhere, a bishop with a miter resembling the devil's horns steps out to gore the audience with his headdress. Finally the entire troupe, backed by a deafening drum, simply dance the crowd out of the nightclub.

Coercive as it sounds, this exeunt omnes has a wacko logic all its own. Anyone who's just seen Ale ("Breath") will be breathless, unwilling to break the spell of its almost too rich theatricality. The two dozen Comediants, merry pranksters from Catalonia on the coast of northeast Spain, offer the most exuberant display of concentrated and communal make-believe you're likely to meet. Their presence at the International Theatre Festival of Chicago is cause for celebration but just to make sure, the Comediants do some celebrating themselves.

Though they've done it almost 300 times throughout Europe and in Mexico, Ale is one of only two shows that the Comediants will premiere in the United States. On April 23, at Navy Pier, they opened the fest with Demonios ("The Devils"), a crowd-moving extravaganza whose ecstatic drumming and great gushes of sparklers suggested the pagan abandon of some ancient festival.

Though Ale opens with a videotape of the orgiastic Demonios, nothing can prepare an audience for this outrageous, hilarious fiesta. Performed on a thrust stage mined with trap doors and gimmicks' galore, the Comediants' dance of life eventually swirls all over the Park West. This spectacle, embellished with florid slide projections, is accompanied by a supple live score that merrily mocks the doings. We're transported from a literally devilish Creation to our own anarchic present--and finally to a seductive, almost perversely sweet, depiction of death.

If our species deserves a chronicle, this is probably it.

Ale begins quietly enough: a woman in an old-hag mask and dressed like a dowdy duenna opens the pageant. An embodiment of death, she will usher the action in and out, petulantly or with timeworn patience, and end it too.

The first--and relatively restrained--section is a dumb show that presages what follows. Figures shrouded in white play with giant sheets to depict the seven ages of man: as the Death crone gleefully tears off calendar sheets, life starts with the cutting of the umbilical cord (here, a white ribbon) and finally yields to Death (now carrying a sickle), who dispassionately snips the ribbon of life.

The Comediants' revisionist version of Genesis then emerges from a symbolically murky onstage fog. Demons, it seems, created Creation, not God. Erupting everywhere in medieval devil costumes, they assemble the solar system and stars (Ping-Pong balls hurled into the audience), hoisting the planets on ropes. One--Earth--gets smashed; it's resuscitated with a bicycle pump. The last devil hangs a lovely, crystalline Moon, diaphanously lit by a serene blue light.

Into this calm barges a burlesque, white-bearded God. Accompanied by clumsy, pudgy-faced, insipid angels with useless wings, he grabs the Earth and claims the credit for it. This motley crew sets up Eden--unrolling a grass tarp, hurling dart-flowers and fake bunnies onto the stage, and unfurling imitation trees. Adam emerges from a huge egg and slyly rips off his fig leaf to complete his nudity.

Humanity and its gibbering idiocy fill the rest of Ale. Three nude men squabble over two nude women; a towering dragon lumbers on to inspire fire; two proto-actors dance on, one flaunting a giant phallus. Yet no change proves as drastic as the arrival of a clown truck marked "Moderna." From it springs a snake-oil con artist and his sexpot assistant. He sprays the Stone Agers with seltzer water and shames them into wearing undies (the men suddenly develop a macho swagger). He orders Eden's trees cut down, literally toilet trains the cave folk, and parodying modern medicine, cures a cut wrist as if by magic. (This is a marvelous, scary illusion.)

Finally we're told it's 1988. Button-down technocrats cavort amid frenzied gears, both people and machinery silhouetted in apparent homage to Chaplin's Modern Times. The characters, now wearing giant puppet heads like those you see at Mardi Gras, embark on an anarchic binge. A fat-faced Party Man hosts a fete interrupted by people sporting humongous puppethead caricatures of world leaders; after throwing papers around, they produce a globe encircled by a crown to which they attach maypole ribbons in which they're quickly entangled. In despair, the world leaders pull off their puppet heads and retire.

As if knowing the end is near, the increasingly frenetic party resumes: an old lady gets her head stuck in a plastic bag, a huge cake is hurled at the audience, who are also sprayed with "champagne." The characters desperately mime falling in love: a blowsy lady coos on the phone to her "Antonio"; an old codger stumbles through the cha-cha for his "Maria"; two men cuddle in a bed stood on end. It's become an existential version of Laugh-In.

Finally, demanding a "scene change," Death dons an oilcloth wrapper and summons her skeletons. In a scene that recalls the ending of the Joffrey Ballet's Clowns, they smother the characters beneath a huge plastic bag. One by one the characters, unable to appease Death with bribes (doughnuts, coins), calmly turn in their masks, and Death cuts the ribbons. The final victim, the ebullient Party Man, gets trundled off in an elaborate hearse. Then the audience gets its all-too-necessary eviction notice.

Glorious goings-on, full of childlike wonder, and every stage picture packed with a thousand words--some in Spanish and some in a fractured English. These renegade rituals erupt with a spontaneity that can only be the result of painstaking craftsmanship. In Ale's 90 minutes, there's hardly a dull moment--the Comediants re-create our world so inventively, with such compassionate irony, that it hurts to return to the "real" one.

The works of Samuel Beckett rush toward death, hungry for endless silence. The tragedy is that his characters never get there: suspended in a lack of animation, they may be buried to their waists or waiting for Godot, but they're never free from the illusions of personality.

In the trilogy of novels Beckett wrote from 1947 to 1949--Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable--Beckett's reductio ad absurdum of human pretensions takes the form of assorted funny but corrosive monologues. They're spoken by isolates searching for themselves in the guise of searching for others: Molloy's pursuit of his mother; Moran's quest for his alter ego, Molloy. In the stream-of-consciousness The Unnameable, consciousness itself inevitably questions consciousness, and ends with "I'll go on," the only option.

For these searchers, silence isn't just golden--it's irreducible truth. Molloy says, "About me all goes really silent, from time to time, whereas for the righteous the tumult of the world never stops." And, pointedly, "To restore silence is the role of objects." It's also the role of Beckett.

Though theater prefer's words to pauses, an actor works in silence as a painter works on canvas. Certainly Barry McGovern does--and with awesome control and spellbinding drive. His one-man show, I'll Go On--inspired by and drawn from Beckett's trilogy--is an International Theatre Festival import from the Gate Theatre Dublin. This intricate, weirdly hilarious assemblage is a duet with silence.

Of course the words win out, and Beckett's are gorgeous, hanging in the air like fearsome wraiths, pungent with ferocious scatological fusions: Molloy boasts of his "tranquility of decomposition," his testicles are "decaying circus clowns"; Malone labels himself "an old fetus." A cunning craftsman with a subversive grumble, McGovern shouts, mutters, snarls, and leaks these words with an infectious glee or rolls them in his mouth like pearls.

McGovern, at first the Irish scamp, sneaks in from the wings and teases the audience about what we think we're going to see--"a compulsory play"? It is, he cagily admits, about "waiting alone."

In the first act this aloneness is Molloy, dressed in a Dr. Who scarf and monklike greatcoat, the inside of which is stitched in newspapers. Molloy/McGovern is surrounded by Robert Ballagh's two-sided box made up of marbleized panels outlined by a white fluorescent light. There, in a corner, lit by a pale spot, lurks Molloy.

As the lights come up, he launches into a soliloquy, a bit of consummate story telling, His pell-mell Joycean ramble covers Molloy's fear of charity; his fury, which is full of self-loathing, at his mother; the special language they share (he knocks on her skull but she keeps getting the code wrong); his adventures while riding a bicycle--here, as his only prop, a sawhorse--to visit his "Mag" (the "g" prevents him from having to think about who she is); his fear of any pain. Everything, in fact, but Malloy himself.

While wondering "why this frenzy to get to her [his mother]?" Molloy runs over a dog that a fatuous old lady was going to put to sleep. He spins a sidesplitting yarn about an obscene parrot. And he desribes his monomaniacal attempt to distribute 16 pebbles about his person so he can suck on each in turn. Then he bitterly admits they taste the same anyway: "Deep down I don't give a tinker's curse!" The same applies to sex, "a mug's game" he isn't sure he ever played.

This "last of my foul brood, neither man nor beast," is a self-stunned soul, obsessed with his bodily functions ("315 farts in 19 hours!"), poking about in the garbage, saying "This is life," and dismissing his own blarney with "It's only since I've been dead that I think of these things."

But in the second act these distractions no longer work: "nothing is more real than nothing." McGovern is now the aging Malone waiting for his "last word," cadaverous in a white nightshirt and, "neutral and inept," stretched out on a marble sarcophagus. Though "the best would be not to begin," his own death compels him to stare at all that's gone by. But not without contradictions: confessing that he "shall die without enthusiasm," he then explodes with "I forgive nobody!"--just to set the record straight.

Malone's desperation for distractions makes him rake up his past in "lifeless stories" of pig butchers and children who "suck up" nature with their eyes. But these just return him to his deathwatch: "Let us leave these morbid matters and get on with the business of my demise." As part of his deathwatch he imagines himself a prisoner where "what matters is to eat and excrete."

Finally, bare to the waist and squatting at the foot of the tomb, Malone imagines he's "making headway." He rages at all the lies he told to avoid thinking about what really matters--Malone. The "paltry priests of the irrepressible ephemeral" will distract him no longer. He would like to have killed his mother before he was born, but as things stand, he's only got himself. "Myself at last!" That panics him--that's just what we believe happens before we die. Malone forces words out to kill the silence, in a rush of talk like a heart attack. More is less is nothing.

The rest, as always, is silence. By the end, McGovern has stripped Beckett to the basics--one man "waiting alone" and dazzling us with his distractions. If Ale conjured up the world with everything it could grab, I'll Go On does it with just one voice. In either case it's perfect theater.

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