Any event is automatically fun if you sneak into someplace you're not supposed to be--like the balcony at the Congress Theater, where I found myself last Saturday night. Collaboraction, a local theater group and nonprofit arts organization known for its experimental plays, wacky theme parties, and enormous faculty for attracting money, was throwing its second annual Carnaval bash. Included in the $25 admission fee were samba dancing, a body-painting show, an open bar, and a demolition derby involving those big motorized toy cars that rich people get for their kids. Profits from Carnaval would fund Collaboraction's production of Guinea Pig Solo at the Chopin Theatre starting March 5.
While a capoeira group performed in the lobby, photographer Andrea Beno and I walked right past them into the VIP lounge. VIPs had paid $45--$20 more than everyone else--for access to the room's hidden delights, which turned out to be a buffet table of meat, sushi, and sweets and a stash of "premium" adult beverages. By the time we got up there the preparty was over. Half-eaten Bundt cakes, runny blobs of flan, and the carcass of some chocolate confection were strewn across a few tables. But there was still plenty of booze at the unmanned bar, so I slipped a bottle of chardonnay into the giant handbag I take to parties for just such an opportunity.
This is how it always goes at Collaboraction events--if I want to have any fun I have to make it myself. The last one I went to was Prom 2004: Just Like Heaven, at Logan Square Auditorium in June. The invitations promised, among other things, a Seven Minutes in Heaven make-out room. Upon paying $40 for admission, each partygoer was given a plastic heart-shaped bracelet intended as a bargaining device: people were supposed to invent dares for one another and use the bracelets as payment. I was prepared to get double-dog-dared to make out with a stranger, but everyone was exasperatingly well behaved. The make-out room was fiercely guarded, admitting only two consenting adults at a time. There wasn't even much dirty dancing. My real prom was nastier.
The group had let out another wet fart the previous November, when they threw a party commemorating the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia at West Grand Studios, a semienclosed warehouse space next to Collaboraction HQ. A woman dressed as the grim reaper came out on a white horse, led by a man in a wheelchair. When the horse got to the stage, where a ceremonial reading was about to happen, it freaked out and shat all over the place. After that it was hard to focus on anything else.
So when I left for the party on Saturday I told my friends I'd meet up with them in Boys Town soon. They nodded sagely--none of them go to Collaboraction parties unless they're working or on the list.
You can't accuse Collaboraction of not trying hard enough. Immediately upon entering the Congress I was confronted with a giant mobile of plywood Cocteau-esque figures. Beneath it, lithe women in white spandex bodysuits with turquoise butterfly wings, tea lights cupped in their hands, shifted slowly from pose to pose--stretching their arms, twirling their wrists, gracefully lifting a leg up to the side of a head--on top of three banquet tables.
I started talking with Nate Hiemstra, part of the pit crew for the Pink Lady--a Barbie Lamborghini that would be competing in the minicar derby later--and Appalachian artist Duncan Anderson, who after living in the city for a decade still wears a bolo tie, cowboy hat and shirt, and shitkicker boots. Hiemstra, a stout little chipmunk of a man in pink coveralls, charmed me with his candor. "I want to be liked," he admitted at one point. "When I turned 30 a whole reserve of patience just opened up," he said at another. As I considered his philosophical query "Did you ever notice that the Flintstones walk with their fingers curled under?" it dawned on me that I was having fun. Weird.
Collaboraction executive director Anthony Moseley brought my merriment to a screeching halt by announcing it was time for the body-painting parade. Body painting belongs at the Playboy mansion or, and I'm being generous here, the circus. At a party it's usually an excuse for unattractive people to get practically naked, and that's unkind to everyone, really. Moseley called this portion of the evening a "fashion show," but, I'm sorry, it's not a fashion show if no one's wearing any fucking clothes.
Everyone dutifully made their way into the foyer, where we were treated to the spectacle of a topless Moseley, his furry chest and tubby gut streaked with baby-chick yellow and hot pink. He thanked everyone for coming and warned us that if people didn't start dancing after the parade he was gonna get "a little weird." As if to demonstrate, he humped the person closest to him, a bewildered silver-haired man, then shoved the guy away, asking, "Who was that?"
The models started traipsing down the stairs, most wearing nothing but a thong, some feathers, crusts of glitter, and scallops, swirls, dots, and blocks of paint. And they were beautiful. One woman looked like a cross between a geisha and a tart from Moulin Rouge, with a painted-on black-and-red bodice and a quiver of red feathers covering her quim. Another woman pranced around like a fairy, covered in pink and purple glittery stripes and waving a beribboned wand. The crowd seemed to like the two-woman team best. Both their torsos were painted in full-bloom roses, with tangles of vines trailing down their legs and fluffy tulle trains on their booties. The only guy in the show came out with his face painted like the Misfits skull, the rest of him like a blood-spattered robot zombie with an elaborate fly painted on its chest. I was so entranced I barely minded when some bitch behind me dumped her nachos down the back of my pants.
Next came the minicar demolition derby, the brainchild of Art Institute grad student Shawnee Barton. Little sports cars and Jeeps whizzed around a ring of tires and bales of hay, reversing then revving up and smashing into one another to the strains of "Born to Be Wild." It was, dare I say, totally fun. By the time American Jesus, a red Jeep with a picture of Jesus on the hood and a white cross taped to the grille, rammed the Pink Lady into a corner to take the trophy and the title, I was cheering along with the rest of the crowd.
And I never did make it to Boys Town.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.