Kind Ness | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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KIND NESS

Blind Parrot Productions

at the Gallery

Ping Chong's Kind Ness is a sly piece. It's so harmonious, so funny, so darn entertaining that it's easy to sit back and mindlessly watch it the way you'd watch a Cubs game from a good seat behind home plate. Then you start to think about what you're seeing and you go, "Hey! Wait a minute . . . " There's something fishy about Kind Ness, like someone stole home and nobody noticed.

Kind Ness begins with a series of slides, introduced by a smooth, reassuring voice (Kent Modglin) coming from somewhere in the dark above. "We're going to show you some images right now," the voice says calmly. "We'd like you to think about what is alike and what is not alike. What is similar and what is not similar. What the images have in common and how they differ."

With the assuredness of Mr. Rogers, the voice begins narrating the slides. Two words appear on the screen: "Chimera. Camera. Chimera. Camera. Chimera is Italian for camera," the voice tells us. Believe it?

Try the next set of words: "George Raft. George Sand. Images having to do with beaches, or water." Or the next set of images: a man on his knees with a soldier pointing a gun at his head; and Jackie and John F. Kennedy at the Inaugural Ball in 1961. "Images of rendezvous."

The slide presentation ends and on walks a sweet young girl (Martie Sanders) with golden curls, a blue organdy dress, and white, white shoes. She's reading an old love story, of the type by the Bronte sisters: we hear the words over the speaker. Enter Alvin (Jon Kellam) wearing red high tops, jeans, a white letter sweater, and geeky black glasses. He sees her and flips out. Hormone attack. He quivers and quakes, growls, chokes, and drools, circling around her from behind like a kid playing cowboys and Indians. Suddenly he grabs her and she screams.

She, Daphne, hates him. He wants her to walk in the woods. She won't. She's rich. He's poor. Her father owns coal mines. His has black lung. She drinks champagne. He drinks Champale. At the end of this argument the voice asks us if these two people are "alike, or not alike? Harmonious or dissonant?"

Throughout Kind Ness Chong subtly juxtaposes incongruous images and words and toys with our perceptions of their meanings. To do this he creates a pseudoscientific sociological study of six American classmates: LuLu (horny but holy Irish Catholic), Dot (blind, Eastern European Jew), Alvin (hormone-injected, working-class French Canadian), Buzz (sweet gorilla from Rwanda), Rudy (capital C Christian), and Daphne (100 percent pure wealth WASP). Yes, Buzz is really a gorilla from Rwanda. He wears black high tops and has a very pleasant disposition.

Using the narrator as administrator of the study's tests, Chong analyzes the classmates' relationships with Buzz and each other by observing key moments in their adolescent and adult development. These moments seem disproportionately larger than life, as if we're viewing them through a microscope, and stereotypical aspects of their personalities are bloated up to seem even larger.

To further jumble our perceptions, the moments are not chronological. Buzz (Roberta Rudolph) is introduced on the first day of school, followed by a slapstick scene where a gorilla sneaks around behind a hunter. An older LuLu (Marcia Bottari) falls in love with Buzz and pores over photos from his family album, followed by a party where all the kids introduce themselves to Buzz for the first time.

Then there are the laboratory scenes in which the six classmates are administered a battery of tests: "Touch your nose. Put your arms on top of your head. Turn your waist. What is platonic dualism?" Hands shoot up to give the answer. The administrator turns to the audience. "Anybody feeling alienated from their body?"

Hey, wait a minute. Who's studying whom? Chong gently turns our perception of ourselves as audience on its ear. We can go along for the ride, or we can try to right it, only to have our perception turned on its other ear.

Blind Parrot is the first theater company to perform Kind Ness without Chong's direction. It's a rare feat for any theater company to produce a preexisting performance art piece using only the script and historical information--especially when its creator is still living and performing. Blind Parrot may well be making a historic step here by taking performance art out of the hands of its creator and proving that it can live on its own.

The tremendous success of Kind Ness is due in part to the strength of director Brian Shaw. This Director with the Invisible Hands seems to have guided the piece to the point where it sings on its own, then quietly disappeared.

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