In Cheap Shoes | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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In Cheap Shoes


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Theater Oobleck

at the Broadway Arts Center

In Cheap Shoes begins normally enough. Detective Ray enters wearing the standard-issue hat, trench coat, and dangling cigarette of a gumshoe. He walks like Bogart into Timmy's butcher shop and then, turning to the audience, begins to narrate the story, in the tradition of all detective-movie parodies. He's obsessed with a woman named Mindy, and he doesn't mind telling us so. He loved her and she was beautiful but someone murdered her and now he's on a quest to find her killer. Sure his descriptions of Mindy are more than a little perverse--"She wore stilettos like cotton candy wears a stick"--a bit more sexist and fetishized than most detective parodies ever allow themselves to be. And sure, Timmy the butcher seemed to get an inordinate amount of pleasure out of whacking the rubber chicken with a meat cleaver. But compared to Theater Oobleck's previous work--including Three Who Dared: A Play on the Movies, The Pope Is Not a Eunuch, and The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard--this play seems at first sight remarkably (and disappointingly) restrained.

Happily, a standard-issue detective parody could not have been further from Theater Oobleck's collective mind, and it doesn't take more than five minutes for this initial premise to be all but abandoned by everyone except Ray, who clings until the bitter end to the illusion that he is a character in a straight detective story.

In the very next scene we meet a pair of weird sisters, the beautiful and conventionally manipulative Cain and her plain and subversively controlling sister, Maggie, neither of whom have any interest in being characters in Ray's detective story. They don't care about Mindy, don't care who killed her, and are frankly jealous of the fact that Ray is so obsessed with a woman who, according to Maggie, slept with every available man. On top of this, they have their own story to tell. Cain and Maggie are celebrating the anniversary of the day they killed their parents, something they admit to quite frankly to Ray, although he's not too interested. To complicate things, though Mom and Dad are gone, from time to time their ghosts posess Cain and Maggie--at Maggie's command--and use their bodies to act out scenes from the past. All this happens, mind you, in the first five minutes of a two-act play.

From this point on, the story becomes stranger and stranger, more and more complicated, and less and less like anything else you've ever seen. To summarize the whole richly chaotic show with any accuracy at all would take more time and space and a stronger memory than I have. It suffices to say that what started out as an unexceptional detective parody quickly becomes something much more--a lampooning of social roles, a comment on the limits of linear narrative, an attempt to stretch the boundaries of comedy itself. Eventually, the show turns inward and makes fun of itself: at one point Ray comments, "Something worried me about this dialogue. Was it funny? What did it mean?" Later on in the show, Timmy asks Ray "What was that all about?" after a particularly confusing flashback, to which a baffled Ray can only answer, "I don't know."

Of course, such self-conscious irony is all the rage, but Theater Oobleck's brand of irony has a bite that's usually missing. They have a very definite, highly politicized point of view that informs their work (and working methods) from the word go, and they are not afraid to let it show.

It can't be mere chance that the lobby of Theater Oobleck's new space in the Broadway Arts Center is decorated with a poster for last year's anarchist "unconvention" in Toronto, as well as a travel poster from the 60s featuring a white, middle-class American couple on vacation over whom the slogan reads: "Nicaragua--you'll love it."

This most collective of theater collectives doesn't have a director per se; instead, anyone not on the stage helps direct by acting as an "outside eye," "a suggestion giver," or a "play clarifier." The program credits 17 such "directorz." The result of this collective direction is a show that can't help but embody multiple points of view. Split into a thousand interesting fragments, it conveys a complexity and ambiguity missing from most comedy. Structurally, however, these shows are a mess, and people with a low tolerance for confusion should be warned from the very beginning that In Cheap Shoes may send them screaming from the theater.

Similarly, this show is not for the impatient. Parts of the first act are a little slow; several times I thought for sure the play had stalled, but each time the actors pulled the story out of its dive. But for those willing to wait, the second act is a real treat. And even when the comedy doesn't work, as it often doesn't in the first act, there was still something fascinating about watching the show and wondering what would develop next.

Anyone who believes that avant-garde theater is the last refuge for bad actors should check out this talented cast. These four young comic actors (Terri Kapsalis, Robin Harutunian, Bill Cusack, and Randy Herman) show considerable ability, versatility, and comic energy. They could all not only hold their own with a more conventional script--they would shine. Robin Harutunian (who wrote the play in collaboration with the rest of the company) is amazing. A natural physical comedian, she can turn from plain to sexy, angry to conciliatory, with incredible facility just by changing her posture.

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