To see the difference between the Neo-Futurists' Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, Greg Allen's long-running hit that featured an exuberant, lyrically inclined ensemble scrambling to perform 30 original plays in 60 minutes, and the Neo-Futurists' The Infinite Wrench, the replacement show that does the same stuff in the same theater in the same time slot, you have to squint awfully hard.
Allen pulled the rights to Too Much Light—at least the Chicago production of it—at the end of 2016, arguing that the rise of Trumpism required it. "I could no longer stand by and let my most effective artistic vehicle be anything but a machine to fight Fascism," he announced via press release, adding that he'd create a new ensemble "comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ+, artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices in order to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression." The fact that Too Much Light had always included such individuals in its numerous casts and that Allen was allowing the New York, London, and San Francisco Too Much Light franchises to continue unchanged left many in Chicago's theater world scratching their heads and, disappointingly, airing long–pent-up venom against Allen on social media and in print.
In the two years since the demise of Too Much Light, Allen's new anti-fascist ensemble hasn't materialized. But the Neo-Futurists, under Kurt Chiang's artistic direction, have continued full steam ahead, almost as though calling Allen's bluff. The Infinite Wrench adds the slightest of tweaks to Allen's show, providing the audience the same "menu" of 30 play titles, which they "order" on demand, each play beginning when its title is snatched from a clothesline strung above the stage. The ensemble still gives itself 60 minutes on the same darkroom timer, and they still order a pizza for the audience when the show sells out. But now, at the end of each play, the performers yell "Next!" instead of "Curtain!"
Allen should take all this as a compliment. The form and structure of Too Much Light can hardly be improved on, although the new show's adding a "wrench" each night—some spontaneous mucking with the show's conventions—creates an extra bit of meddlesome urgency (on the sold-out night I attended, someone decided the show would end when the pizza delivery person showed up).
Most importantly, the ingenuity and engagement of the work not only remains but has deepened. With only the occasional misstep into poetic opacity, the ensemble maps thorny social, psychological, and political terrain with foolishness and ferocity. And watching a dozen or so people sprint for an hour, setting up and tearing down plays they've barely had time to rehearse, is exhilarating and vital. v