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Off Off Loop Theater Festival: Years Ago/La Petenera/Fragments From the Permanent Collection

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OFF OFF LOOP THEATER FESTIVAL

YEARS AGO

Synergy Theatre Company's

Chrysalis Project

LA PETENERA

La Barraca '90

FATTY TISSUE

Theater by Design

FRAGMENTS FROM THE PERMANENT COLLECTION

Playwrights' Center

The basic idea of the Off Off Loop Theater Festival is a good one: showcase the work of a number of Chicago's more interesting non-Equity theaters in a location more amenable to the mainstream theatergoing public than the storefronts, converted firehouses, and saloon back rooms where these companies normally perform. After all, the fringe seems at times the only place left in our increasingly money-obsessed, morbidly cautious theater scene where companies are willing to take the crazy, inspired risks Chicago used to be known for.

But it's hard not to be a little disappointed with the offerings in the 1991 Off Off Loop Theater Festival. For one thing, many of Chicago's most creative and daring non-Equity theater companies--Theater Oobleck, the Curious Theatre Branch, the Big Game Theater, the Prop Theatre, Cardiff Giant--are entirely unrepresented. And too many of the entries lack the passion and edgy energy that typify great non-Equity shows--as if the companies had to sacrifice what made their work interesting to satisfy both the technical requirements of the festival (entries must be less than an hour in length and involve minimal use of props and lighting cues) and the limitations of the Theatre Building's high-school-auditorium-ish south theater.

This sacrifice certainly seems to have been made in two of the four shows that make up one of the better collections in the festival, the Thursday-night installment. Only La Barraca '90's production of La Petenera and Synergy Theatre's ultrasimple production of Lisa Dillman's one-woman show Years Ago seem well suited to the space; both plays involve no set to speak of, no sound effects, and no special lighting cues.

Of course, it's hard to go wrong when you have (as in the case of Years Ago) an actress as capable as Pamela Webster performing a text as moving and well written as Dillman's. In this graceful little monologue, Webster plays a middle-aged woman who recalls her life with the man she is about to divorce. Though she never mentions her feelings directly--doing so would be unseemly for a woman of her social stature (upper-middle-class WASP) and breeding--her repressed anguish and grief come out in the mournful way she pronounces her words and in her attempts at self-censorship, which cause her thoughts to break off into hundreds of disconnected sentence fragments. Webster manages to communicate much more about her character's stiff-spined dignity in her refusal to state exactly what is on her mind than she would have ever been able to with a more obvious script.

La Barraca '90's incredibly dramatic production of La Petenera makes an interesting complement to Years Ago. This bilingual retelling of the Sephardic tale of La Petenera, the beautiful Jewish woman (played by flamenco dancer Poli) who converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition and was murdered by a jealous lover, communicates none of the major plot points of the folktale. Nevertheless, the fusing of flamenco, traditional Spanish folk songs, and Federico Garcia Lorca's poetry (spoken both in Spanish and in Tomas de Utrera and Chet Long's English translation) manages to be so utterly riveting, so full of unspoken yearning, that the emotional subtext of the story comes across loud and clear. Who cares if we learn almost nothing about the traditional story? De Utrera's guitar and Poli's passionate flamenco dancing communicate the most when they literally say nothing at all.

In contrast, Fatty Tissue, Edwin Sanchez's dark cartoonish comedy (produced by Theater by Design) about a woman with an eating disorder and her love-hate relationship with her refrigerator, loses the audience's sympathy precisely because the woman tells us so much about herself. Sanchez doesn't seem to have been able to decide whether to go for the laughs or the pathos in his story; instead we get a comic monologue delivered by a woman who is so self-destructive we don't dare laugh at her and so determined to prove she is aware of both her predicament and its root causes that it's hard to feel much sympathy for her.

It doesn't help that Doris Difarnecio brings all of her character's barely hidden hostility to the surface. She doesn't communicate with the audience; she assaults us, breaking off her flow of words only long enough to harangue several people who entered the show late (and one who left early) before resuming her story. Ironically, these occasional violations of the fourth wall only make the distance between Difarnecio and her audience seem bigger.

The addition of a moving refrigerator (played by Thomas Carroll) to the story adds a touch of TV-commercial surrealism to the play, but it neither deepens our understanding of Doris's character nor makes Sanchez's play any easier to take. In fact the presence of the moving refrigerator only underscores how much black, unused space surrounds Difarnecio and Thomas and how small this production seems in the festival's large performance space.

The Playwrights' Center entry in the festival, Michael Brayndick's Fragments From the Permanent Collection, is another production that seems lost in the expanse of the south theater. But then this inept bit of mediocrity would have been lost anywhere. Set in the Art Institute, Brayndick's play concerns a lonely, fat, middle-aged, balding man who becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman who spends her days gazing at paintings. Eventually he approaches her and blurts out several paragraphs' worth of pseudoliterary drivel, and then the two settle down to an act's worth of uninteresting conversation, interrupted every few minutes by a second couple, who take various silly modern-dance poses while they discuss their relationship.

I'm told this play was intended to evoke the various schools of modern art, but none of that comes through. The awful dialogue is reminiscent of nothing so much as language-lab tapes--Woman: "I'm a typist for a writer. He's very famous." Man: "I'm an astronomer actually. I often work nights." The play ends with a whimper as the lonely man finally gets up enough nerve to ask the woman, "So, do you think you want to go out with me?" and the woman answers, "I don't know. I don't think so. I really don't know you well enough, do I?" To which the man replies, "I suppose you're right." Kind of hard to care about characters who don't seem to care much about themselves.

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