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On Stage: an experiment in controlled frenzy

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Chicago actor John Cusack has assembled a band of freaks for his directing debut. One of them, Leonard the Rooster Man, caws his fear that the future will have no use for his uniqueness. Another, the Woman in Perpetual Labor, has a beach-ball belly that contains a 14-year-old fetus--which knows the past, foretells the future, and predicts the weather

These are two of the many characters in the new play Alagazam . . . After the Dog Wars. Written by Adam Simon and Tim Robbins, the play is a tragicomedy, an allegorical tale about a traveling medicine show selling bogus health products in the American midwest on the eve of the television age. It is intended to depict the fundamental changes that happened as the United States shifted from a nation of industry to a nation of information and flickering images.

Overshadowing the story line is a vigorous performance style that combines dramatic swings between the four emotional states--happiness, sadness, anger, and fear--of commedia dell'arte, one of the world's oldest theater styles, with a Brechtian tendency to eliminate the fourth wall, and high-energy vaudevillian slapstick. The actors wear whiteface with accentuated features, and they direct all their dialogue and actions to the audience, nearly challenging it to respond. This technique is difficult and draining for actors, who must convey an almost exaggerated emotional state even before they utter their lines. Furthermore, says Cusack, the actors must move quickly across the full range of their characters' emotions. "We're not afraid to go for the most shocking, cheap joke--like a testicle exchange between two partners--then in the next scene go for a serious emotional moment." The result is a sort of controlled frenzy. "I don't know if people will like it," he says, "but they'll respect the energy."

According to Cusack, the combination of styles used in Alagazam was patched together by the Los Angeles-based Actor's Gang, a collection of young UCLA graduates, led by Tim Robbins, who were dissatisfied with the lack of experimentation in Los Angeles theater. In 1981 they began with a form of guerrilla theater, taking an unstructured, street theater approach to performance; in 1984, at the Olympic arts festival, they were strongly influenced by Georges Bigot, a commedia dell'arte performer with the French Theatre du Soleil. "One of the reasons we emphasize style and form," says Lee Arenberg, an original Gang member who is in Alagazam, "is that it creates a set of common terms for actors from different backgrounds, a set of rules we all have to play by."

Robbins introduced Cusack to the Actor's Gang after the two met while filming The Sure Thing. Cusack got hooked by the Gang's energy and enthusiasm--and by their eagerness to explore complex issues. Together they conceived and performed pieces that explore the pain and fear of modern life, the betrayal of the public's faith in cultural and governmental institutions, and the threat to individuality and creative thinking latent in those institutions. The Gang's Carnage depicts the destruction of a fundamentalist preacher by his disciple, while revealing the corruption of a religious institution that is meant to shelter and protect. Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, which played in Evanston two years ago, portrays the death of an American farmer who is used by a corporate magnate in a promotion of "progress"--the launching of a rocket ship full of celebrities that is programmed to crash.

Last January, after finishing work in John Sayles's new film, Eight Men Out, Cusack returned to Chicago intent on forming a local Actor's Gang. He gathered together actors from around Chicago and, with the help of Robbins and Arenberg, held a ten-day commedia dell'arte workshop. The response from the actors was so enthusiastic that Cusack changed his plans for the group's first production. "I intended to do Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist," he says, "but it didn't have enough parts in it, and lots of people wanted to work with us. So I decided to do an epic."

Cusack and the cast started with the basic characters and story line Slick Slack Griff Graff, a play created by the LA Gang as part of a performance-art series for the LA Museum of Contemporary Art. They went through two months of nightly improvisations and frequent consultations with Robbins and Simon, dramatically altering the story line and adding new characters.

This process, says Cusack, has "a wonderful frenetic energy because there's no set piece I'm interpreting. It's a piece we're all creating." As a result, the actors seem to bring an added exuberance to the stage, an infectious enjoyment of their work that helps the audience laugh despite the seriousness of the play's issues. Which ultimately is what Cusack is after. "What distinguishes us from other political theater is we don't ram anything down people's throats," he says. "I want to make the audience laugh."

Alagazam starts today and runs through September 25 at the Blind Parrot Theater, 430 W. Erie, 915-0090. Admission is $15 Thursday through Saturday, $12 Sunday. Curtain is 8 PM Thursday and Friday, 7:30 and 10:30 Saturday, and 7 Sunday.

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

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