Curious Theater Branch
at Cabaret Voltaire,
Cabaret Voltaire is a clean, well-lit coffeehouse at Elston and Cortland, just west of the river. Aside from some very bad (and some not so bad) paintings on the wall, it's surprisingly homey and unpretentious. As is Madras Parables, which is playing in the back room. Madras Parables is, well, more revue than play, but that word, revue, makes me think of desperate comedians who may or may not have taken a workshop at Second City--and that's not it at all. So, what is it? Hard to believe, but this may very well be a genuine work of the elusive avant-garde.
The players are Beau O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus, an alarming couple who would be fun to invite to your next party to help get rid of all those guests you didn't want there in the first place. O'Reilly is an impressive but quietly intense sort of character, endowed with a malevolent charm reminiscent of Rasputin. Magnus looks like a cross between Patti Smith and Audrey Hepburn, and acts like she recently escaped from a doctoral program in philosophy within an inch of her life. Together, they're not the most balanced couple, but they're composed and comfortable with one another and quite at home with an audience. Their show, Madras Parables, is an invitation for you to take your chances and come to their party.
Act one is called "Violence and the Sacred," and includes poetry, monologues, and a couple songs. The poetry is unusually conventional in style--rhymed verse, no less--but too surreal and inchoate to grasp in a single hearing. The most I could make out was that the sacred and the violent are somehow hopelessly intertwined, or, as Magnus puts it, "One man's wine is another man's piss." I had better luck with the monologues. O'Reilly, in one instance, plays a prison guard who tells a story of casual brutality, all the time mysteriously rubbing his potbelly, and concludes that when he quits he's "gonna miss it." And Magnus has a wonderful piece where she laments her lover's merely human qualities, and fantasizes about a brave new relationship in a "theoretical house."
Although this first half of the show doesn't readily lend itself to your personal enlightenment, I never got the feeling that O'Reilly and Magnus were smirking down at me from some surrealist height. The performance style is low-key, sometimes verse or sing-song, or a preoccupied monologue, like the retelling of a dream to a friend. And when one or the other isn't performing at the moment, Magnus or O'Reilly will just sit in a corner of the stage like a blues musician waiting it out. The attitude is so soft-sell, it's seductive, and I found myself willing to leave behind what I didn't understand in anticipation of some clearer passage up ahead.
Then, abruptly, came intermission, which I spent out on the sidewalk where it was 20 degrees cooler. Now intermission, for me, is a time of reflection, a time when I weigh creature comforts against the rigors of the avant-garde, and when I'd ordinarily wish I were somewhere air-conditioned, drinking a cold beer, and talking with people who don't believe in witchcraft. Yet this time I wouldn't have minded sitting down with Dr. Caligari himself if only he would explain it all to me. But--and I guess this is the only enduring law of the avant-garde--you've got to figure it out yourself. So I walked back into that sweaty back room for part two, "Your Dreams Are Bleeding Over Into Mine."
The first piece hit me right where I live, in a Buena Park tenement uncomplicated by central air. O'Reilly, stripped to the waist, delivers a semi conscious monologue as if he's just given up trying to sleep on a horribly hot night. He describes, in cloying detail, the damp mattress, the racket next door, the closeness of lying there next to his lover without touching, never touching. And then someone, a stranger named Johnny, calls and complains about how the Puerto Ricans hate the Mexicans, and the Mexicans hate the Cubans, who hate the blacks, who hate the whites, who hate everyone. And O'Reilly hangs up. Who are these people? "Do they just dial at random?" Then, without making a schmaltzy big deal out of it, O'Reilly relates how he goes back to bed and touches his lover lightly, just on her hip, and it's good. Camus' The Stranger, but with a happy ending.
Well worth the sweat.
I can't say the same about this entire act, although I apprehended the overall theme--of dreaming--more easily than the theme of "violence and the sacred" in the first act. For example, there's a song entitled "I've Been Dreaming About Carl Gustav Jung" and a poem about Freud (set to the meter of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas")--neither very intriguing. In fact, there are a lot of songs in the second act, yet only the occasional lyric, such as "Don't misplace me please," still lingers, like a bad check, in my memory. The rest of the songs are so slight, so innocuous, that you barely hear them before they're forgotten.
Yet I do vividly, and gratefully, recall that during one of those water-soluble songs, O'Reilly stood holding Magnus's left arm, his forehead resting on her shoulder, as she sang. It was a gesture of what? Repentance? Sympathy? Supplication? I don't know, but it had the familiarity of a dreamed image, or of something forgotten but still regretted. And Magnus sang with her own head inclined slightly in his direction, but not looking at him, as if she were singing, perhaps explaining, something for the both of them. I don't know what the point of that particular madras parable was, but it was the point of rest for the whole evening.
Sounds weird, sure enough, and it doesn't surrender to convenient analysis. As far as content goes, what I was capable of appreciating in Madras Parables is best captured in that phrase, "Your dreams are bleeding over into mine." Some of it bleeds over, and some doesn't. So I guess the effectiveness of this production would depend on your own affinity with the collective unconscious. And it certainly wouldn't hurt to have a script to follow along with.
One thing I do know: this is a genuine effort. O'Reilly and Magnus aren't trying hard to be avant-garde. They use no masks or mood music. They don't turn household appliances into musical instruments. They are, curiouser and curiouser, out there on a limb, in the tentative process of forming rather than in the definitive act of performing. Without a net.