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Ritual Clowns


through April 27

The Lazarus-Go-Round

Kinetic Delta Cor

at the Neo-Futurarium,

March 23 and 24

As a teacher and codirector of the ImprovOlympic, Del Close has been a major behind-the-scenes influence on Chicago's current crop of fertile long-form improvisers, among them the folks at Annoyance, the ImprovOlympic, and post-Lois Kaz Second City.

But Close's other obsessions--his interests in white magic, merry pranksters, and the holiness of clowning--are what inform Ritual Clowns, created and directed by one of Close's former students, James Grace. He and his cast attempt to steal a few tricks from the Hopi sacred clowns: in Hopi culture, clowns are more like priests and judges than mere entertainers. Their performances are meant to right wrongs and maintain social and cosmic harmony, using the usual tools of clowning: wearing elaborate costumes, they burlesque social behavior, satirize specific people, and generally horse around. Grace's clowns are more like sacred improvisers, however, since they're taken from the rolls of Close's improv students. Yet they aim for nothing less than to redress social ills, specifically those arising from the media.

The ritual they enact is a variation on Del Close's long-form chestnut, the Harold, in which actors improvise on the basis of an audience suggestion for 30 to 60 minutes, creating scenes that may involve the whole cast or only two or three performers. In Grace's ritual, the "audience" suggestion is a videotaped selection from that night's news. A ragtag assortment of television sets are arranged along the back wall of the Improv-Olympic's new second-story space, some black-and-white, some color, some on their sides, others with tubes so bad they deliver only ghostly out-of-focus images. The chosen news clip is played simultaneously on all these sets while the performers turn their backs on the audience and watch--and there's something striking about this image, as if the actors were not just watching but actually worshiping the glowing blue tubes. Yet despite all the multimedia pretensions of this work, which Grace insists is performance and not theater, it fails to say much that's new about the media.

The night I saw Ritual Clowns the news clip was about local Chicagoan William Griffin, who claimed to have found the black jogging clothes Kato has testified that O.J. Simpson was wearing on the evening his wife was murdered. Grace's cast spent the first few minutes delivering key phrases from the news story, repeating them so many times we were almost forced to memorize the details of the sloppy newscast, the slapdash taping, and the news reader's grammatical errors and to recognize the way everyone involved assumed these were indeed Simpson's jogging clothes, which had somehow miraculously remained intact in a Chicago forest preserve for nine months.

The Ritual Clowns, however, chose not to satirize the biases of the storyteller, even though many of them were painfully obvious: the reporter never seemed to doubt, for example, that her subject had uncovered some important new evidence in the trial. Instead they focused on Griffin's mendacity, spinning out a series of entirely fictional but incredibly mundane scenes from his life. In one Griffin is an adolescent being asked by his mother to pretend he's younger than he is so he can get into a movie on a child's ticket. In another he must 'fess up about denting the family van (how many times has this scene been repeated in the history of improv?).

Surrounding the improvisers are an array of other artists, all toiling to make this a multimedia event: mu-sicians, a videographer, and two painters, one behind a Plexiglas "canvas," the other working on the sidelines in spray paint, ink, and, as it turns out, gunpowder--at the end of the show the artist sets fire to this painting. The band plays an accompaniment that ranges from flute tunes reminiscent of Navaho-Ute musician R. Carlos Nakai's music to a series of Coltrane-like screeches and honks, all of which work surprisingly well, though a little of the modern jazz goes a long way. Meanwhile a marauding videographer prowls the stage, taking arty shots of the performers' legs and arms. These images, which form the background for the scenes, add nothing to them except an art-schoolish kind of mystery that some confuse with art itself. All this visual and aural noise ultimately adds nothing to our understanding of the news story, or even of the next big thing in long-form improv.

In Lazarus-Go-Round the Kinetic Delta Cor served up a considerably less noisy, if also less ambitious, multimedia performance. Combining monologues, dance, and live and recorded music, these eight enigmatic, unfocused, but thankfully short pieces break no new ground in performance art. Nor does director Terri Reardon or her partner, musician Jeremy Ruthrauff, have anything particularly earth-shattering to say.

Some of the pieces do contain interesting or witty choices, such as casting two Saint Joans in "Cauterizing Joan," a piece that appropriates sections of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, mostly from Joan's trial, but actually seems to be about the occasional bouts of paranoia and fear women experience in the city. Yet these flashes of inspiration don't usually lead to much: the two Joans are used mostly to indicate a single ambivalent character.

The two most memorable pieces, "Tower of Babel" and "They Sound Like What's Coming Through the Window" (both conceived by Ruthrauff), involve a pas de deux of sorts between the saxophone-playing Ruthrauff and the kinda dancing Reardon, using the different genres as metaphors for attempts to communicate across the chasms of class, gender, or race. And in each piece the attempt to reach across these gulfs proves more frustrating than fruitful--as the title "Tower of Babel" suggests.

By and large the weakest pieces are those that lean most heavily on movement, because no one in this six-member ensemble is a particularly polished or precise dancer. In Reardon's interminable three-part solo, "Something There Is (Just Like Jericho)," she sometimes gracefully, sometimes not so gracefully strikes various dancerlike attitudes in one of four chairs before stacking them on top of one another for the big finale: they all fall down. Which turns out to be an unintentional metaphor for this mostly underwhelming show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Edward Donahue.

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