Lookingglass Lab | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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LOOKINGGLASS LAB

Lookingglass Theatre Company

at the Calo Theatre

His proposal to reach India by sailing west, among other things, marked Don Cristobal Colon (aka Cristovao Colom, nee Christoforo Colombo, and known to us as Christopher Columbus) as a bit of an oddball. A perfectly serviceable overland route to the Indies had been opened up long before by Marco Polo. Portugal had already made extensive explorations along the African coast, and by 1498 would have trade ships traveling regularly around the Cape of Good Hope. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, however, in their quest to expand the borders of their empire, saw in Columbus's voyage the opportunity to usurp Portugal's superior sea power as well as the trade monopoly of the Mediterranean merchants (many of whom were Jewish and therefore scorned by Catholic countries). As for Columbus himself, he was merely a common sailor, from Italy yet, who had happened to marry into a noble Portuguese family; the bride conveniently died only months after the wedding. Who could take him seriously, however useful he might have been to the Spanish Empire?

Such is the Columbus of Lawrence W. DiStasi's book Columbus Upsidedown: a self-important mystic riddled by bouts of insomnia lasting a month or longer and haunted by the sort of demons that would someday cause another Spaniard, Francisco de Goya, to declare that "the sleep of reason breeds monsters." In The Third Voyage, an adaptation by Lawrence E. DiStasi, the author's son, we meet our protagonist on his third Atlantic trip. With his ship marooned in the doldrums, the drinking water running low, and his crew near despair, Columbus remains in his cabin, hanging by his heels from a witches' cradle (now known as gravity boots) in an attempt to drive away the disturbing whispers of an evil golden specter. When land is finally sighted, Columbus presents himself to the inhabitants as a deity. The natives welcome the strangers, and the crew plead with their captain to stay in this idyllic place, but Columbus's vision compels him to continue his quest for a route around the "bottom of the world." As the monarchy bleeds the new land of its wealth and its people, Columbus remains stubbornly oblivious to anything but his faith in the queen's patronage and in the essential goodness of his mission.

This Lookingglass Lab one-act--like the productions of its parent group, the Lookingglass Theatre Company--provides a gallon of spectacle for every ounce of narrative, a formula that has garnered Lookingglass no less than 19 Jeff citations in two years. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Though the intimate Calo Theatre space allows more of the dialogue to be understood than is usually the case in a Lookingglass show, most of the story will be lost on anyone who hasn't read DiStasi's book.

This is not as debilitating as one might think--the lack of a coherent plot is almost negligible, so overwhelming is the spectacle. Heretics are bound to a towering structure of pipe-and-flange scaffolding and burned; Columbus's crew stands on the same structure to scan the seas; and sailors and imps scramble over it like monkeys. Barrels of wine burst on the ship's decks. Food and water spatter into the air or are thrown on the ground. A thief's severed hand gushes blood. The feathers and paint worn by the "savages" eventually decorate the conquerors as well (shades of The Heart of Darkness). Drums thunder in the dark, and eerie whistles and rattles blend in with the golden goddess's animal noises and the screams of people fighting, fainting, and rolling in the muck on the floor.

Along the way, we may note that the boyish-faced Andy White sensitively conveys the hideous innocence of Columbus's crimes, that Frankie Davila is a much better actor than his role as Domenico the converted Indian requires, and that Joey Slotnick (all but unrecognizable under his tropical regalia and George C. Scott voice) delivers a terrifying portrait of the governor Francisco Roldan. The stately Adele Robbins, in the role of the enigmatic goddess, is costumed and made up to resemble a ship's figurehead--which raises the possibility that Columbus was doing little more than following his nose. By the time it's all over, however, our senses are so ravaged and our emotions so exhausted that we have no strength or desire left for intellectual exercise.

Preceding the vigorous The Third Voyage is David Kersnar's Slap My Bald Head, which also saps our energy but in a quite different way. A monologue in the Spalding Gray mode, this piece is framed by a long letter to Kersnar from his half-brother Peter. Writing on the eve of his graduation, Peter reminisces about their childhood days and explains his recent reconversion to Christianity.

This would be fine in itself, but Kersnar clutters his narrative with several other elements: recollections of other family members; wholly unnecessary surrealistic touches (as when he removes his fake bald head to reveal a genuine bald head but overloads the gag by announcing "I don't really have a bald head"); musical numbers so generic (is "Hello in There" the only John Prine song anyone ever covers?) that we wonder if this might be a parody (Kersnar also needs to practice a bit longer before attempting to accompany himself on the guitar); and entirely too many "hi mom, hi dad"-type asides to friends in the audience. The result is a curtain raiser that stretches to a staggering 75 minutes, in which the serious and touching moments are utterly lost in the jumble of persiflage. Kersnar is a poised and engaging performer and his family charming, but a shorter introduction would not render them any less so.

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