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Nonsense In The House

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Geometry of Miracles

Ex Machina

at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

By Justin Hayford

Frank Lloyd Wright believed he was a natural genius. If he thought of something--anything--it was by definition brilliant and needed little shaping or fine-tuning. In the past, internationally renowned theater artist Robert Lepage has exhibited a spirit antithetical to Wright's, overhauling his grand multimedia events for months and even years. I once heard him say that he edits and rewrites his solo shows with each performance, until they're finished and he can replace himself with a real actor. Lepage's newest theater piece may have gone through a similar intensive process--the show's running time has shrunk by an hour since it began touring--but unfortunately this exploration of Wright's art and life looks like the product of a self-described natural genius.

Geometry of Miracles--which is supposedly about the relationship between the revolutionary architect and the Russian mystic Georges Gurdjieff-- ends in the mid-80s in a desert disco-theque, of all places. Here two former Wright apprentices share a cocktail and rekindle a love affair aborted 40 years earlier. Neither character has played much of a role in the preceding action, mostly just standing around looking like an architectural apprentice whenever convenient--though one was apparently married to Wright's daughter. Yet Lepage drives his big, lumbering production around a hairpin turn to bring these insignificant figures together in a protracted finale that's eventually transformed into a line dance led by a malevolent-looking bald man lip-synching "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life."

It is one of the most puzzling theatrical fizzles in recent memory, especially in light of Lepage's technical wizardry and inventive theatrics in works like Needles and Opium, Elsinore, and The Seven Streams of the River Ota, not to mention the Peter Gabriel concerts he designed several years ago. At the same time it's a fitting conclusion to a show that proceeds in no discernible direction, exhibits no meaningful theatrical iconography, and fails to distinguish between minutiae and monuments over the course of two and a half hours. It seems as though anything Lepage and his company, Ex Machina, found remotely interesting about Wright and Gurdjieff was hurled hastily onstage. A superficial jumble of amateurish vignettes passed off as world-class theater, this show suggests the kind of blinkered hubris that led many an artist, Wright included, to ruin.

The parallels between Wright and Gurdjieff are ripe for exploration. Both attempted to develop systems that would help the human race cast off its antiquated ways and deadened consciousness. For Wright that system was his own architecture: among other things, he aimed to construct environments that would encourage a new morality. Basements, which he eliminated, were "unwholesome," while excessive interior decoration was "too worldly." Gurdjieff developed not only an elaborate philosophical system (which to the contemporary reader sounds like psychobabble) but a rigorous physical practice based on ancient Eastern dances. Both men were out to change the world--or, in Gurdjieff's typically modest rhetoric, "to destroy, mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world." Both had disciples. They even shared a lover, Olgivanna Lazovich, who would become Wright's third wife.

But Lepage never establishes, much less elaborates on, these parallels. In fact he doesn't bother to develop either historical figure into anything more than a cardboard cutout. Wright spends the entire evening posturing in a porkpie hat and trench coat, gesturing with a cane and occasionally delivering an aphorism, piece of invective, or bon mot in a sloppy aristocratic accent that makes him sound like the Pepperidge Farm spokesman after a fifth of bourbon. But at least Lepage makes it clear that this person builds buildings. Gurdjieff, on the other hand, is just a cartoonish nut with a shaved head, glaring eyes, and a nearly indecipherable accent; he gives a brief speech about individuation--there's lots of speechifying but little dialogue in the show--then leads a bunch of white-clad people through some derivative, lackadaisical modern choreography.

Rather than create intertwining narratives, Lepage and Ex Machina offer up isolated curiosities in broad, simplistic terms. The piece begins with Wright as a middle-aged man, his career in a tailspin, being visited by a naked Beelzebub, who offers him a second youth in exchange for his soul. Wright declines (making Beelzebub's reappearance to claim his soul at the hour of his death extremely odd) but admits that most of his commissions have dried up. "So does that mean you have to explore new ideas?" Beelzebub asks, ushering in Wright's later idiosyncratic designs as subtly as a student in a high school history-class presentation. Immediately afterward Herbert Johnson, head of Johnson Wax, tap-dances while dreaming up a commission for Wright, assisted by his drag-queen secretaries. Later Johnson dines with Wright, whose apprentices lay out the design for the new Johnson Wax building using dishware--that is, right after Johnson gives a slapstick pitch for his wacky new products Off! and Raid.

These first few scenes reveal Lepage's method: deliver lots of historical facts laced with oddities (Beelzebub, tap dancing, secretaries in drag) that appear and disappear for no reason. As the evening goes on the quirkiness diminishes, leaving only paint-by-number scenes delivered by actors who have to bellow at one another to be heard across Lepage's huge set. At times the piece veers into pure nonsense. Late in the show one of Wright's former apprentices--a closeted gay man--sits in a barber chair after meeting his old flame. The barber tries to slit the man's throat, but the man stops him. Then the apprentice tries to slit his own wrists, but the barber stops him. Then a naked man enters and lies on the apprentice in the barber chair while three shadowy figures watch. Then the barber climbs a rope and spins like a circus acrobat.

Lepage has long struggled to shoehorn conventional playwriting into his pieces--usually dominated by visual images, if only because Lepage executes these with an expertise well beyond his abilities as a writer. But here the stage pictures seem like afterthoughts--they're rarely more complicated than washes of light thrown across a huge white screen. Without Lepage's sophisticated visual designs, the straightforward, even didactic scripted scenes, written by cast members, fall particularly flat.

In the past Lepage has used his image-based theater to suspend logic and hold the viewer in a mystical realm of poetic association. With Geometry of Miracles he treads unceremoniously across the most literal of landscapes, creating banalities where once he created magic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/E. Valette.

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