Notes From Earth: Two Plays by Jim Nisbet | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Notes From Earth: Two Plays by Jim Nisbet

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NOTES FROM EARTH: TWO PLAYS BY JIM NISBET

Free Street Theater

"OK," Free Street Theater director David Schein announces in the lobby. "We're going to take the first group back now." Instead of walking into the theater, we follow him through a long room with faded white walls and melon-color trim. "This used to be the chapel in the old mortuary," he informs us in a conspiratorial tone. "Be careful here," he warns as we wander down a dark, dusty hallway.

We follow him out the back door and down the alley to a patio next to a lot overgrown with Queen Anne's lace and sumac trees, one of those forgotten places in the middle of the city that nobody uses anymore. Night is falling. Lights hanging on the fire escape illuminate two men digging a hole three feet wide and about ten feet long. We sit down, listening to the crunch of shovels in the dry dirt, and wait.

Unfortunately, it's downhill from there, at least for a while. Alas, Poor Yorick, the first of two plays by Jim Nisbet, doesn't deliver. Maybe it was the setup. The eeriness evoked by two guys digging a hole behind an old mortuary is shattered when Jackson, the younger of the two, turns up the Rolling Stones on his jam box and starts messing with the lyrics ("Jumpin' Jack Flash and the shit don't pass"). It doesn't jibe with our notion of who they are, what they're doing, and why they're there.

Our understanding is further garbled when Duffy gets on Jackson's case for changing the lyrics, and the two enter into a wordy discussion about the Rolling Stones as an institution. They explore the metaphysical nature and purpose of institutions, and ultimately conclude that Mick Jagger wouldn't care about the lyric changes because, as Jackson succinctly puts it, "Did you ever hear of an institution caring because they couldn't take a shit?"

The two literally dig themselves further into the hole as Duffy condemns Jackson for watching too much MTV and for living in a world defined by rock and roll. Duffy sees himself as much more intellectual than Jackson, though neither of them seems too bright or interesting. But Gus Johns as Duffy and Greg Willis as Jackson do such a poor job of character analysis that we can't follow their characters' convoluted thought processes.

The only action in this play is intellectual. Duffy and Jackson dig a hole, talk, and think. They seem to be thinking themselves into some sort of parallel universe--at one point one of them pantomimes digging and the other seems to live out a fantasy of some sort. But Ron Bieganski's direction is so shapeless and haphazard it's never clear what's going on. I was lost from the first moment and didn't care if I ever found my way back. That's a shame, because Nisbet's script seems to have a lot of potential. But without careful attention to its nuances, it comes off as just a lot of noise.

Note From Earth, the second play, was carried off with a lot more aplomb, and its eeriness probably should have made it the first play on the bill. Director Schein uses the space beautifully to transport us to a surreal world in which a man with a shaved head stands on the roof two stories above us and cries out to the sky, "In memory of your lips smoking in the wreckage of the 20th century!" He conjures up an odd sense of melancholy and longing, making everything in the world seem out of place.

The man keeps talking to the sky, and it becomes clear that a nuclear holocaust has occurred and he's talking to a former lover, Minnie Three, who escaped earth in search of a new world. He climbs down from the roof, balancing on the fire-escape railing, looking around in a half-dazed, half-crazed manner. "You can probably do without your lips in the new world. And I can do without them too! Though I remember them," he adds wistfully.

As he climbs down the wooden post that holds up the fire escape, never taking the stairs, he tells his former lover about life on earth, where bricks float and ice is money ("It feels so good on your scars"). He hangs precariously from a rope and tells her about his new lover, Minnie Four, who smokes and "makes mobiles out of petrified birds." A car drives by, and he instinctively freezes like a hunted animal until it passes. He wonders what life is like for his former lover wandering around the universe. He looks up and says, "It's so peaceful out there, and so deep it might as well not be deep."

As he delivers his reflections on the state of things on earth, the play becomes an extended performance poem on the nature of love, the earth, and the universe. It contains many of the metaphysical notions lurking in Alas, Poor Yorick, but Schein develops them much better. Performing in this one-man show, Bieganski shows he can make the most of Nisbet's rich images and language. One wonders why he couldn't get something like his performance out of the actors in Alas, Poor Yorick.

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