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Pair of Spectacles


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Redmoon Theater

at the Blue Rider Theatre

October 26 and 27


at the Blue Rider Theatre

October 24-26

A friend who went to a men's movement workshop was told a Russian story that captures the contradictions of growing up male. A boy finds a feather from the firebird while riding his horse. Although his horse tells him not to pick up the feather, the boy picks it up and brings it to the king. The king, impressed, tells him to capture the firebird, which he does with his horse's advice. The king makes him a knight, and tells him to capture a beautiful water nymph. The boy captures her by surrounding himself with the king's wealth. When the nymph wants to marry the boy instead of the king, the king boils the boy in a cauldron. Magically he escapes and becomes king himself.

The fairy tale's symbols are fairly easy to translate into current terms: men's tasks now are to find a career and marry, ignoring their instincts in order to curry favor with those in power. But the powerful want everything for themselves, and must be outwitted and ultimately destroyed for a man to survive. A grown-up then becomes one of the powerful himself.

This arc of growing up, with a nihilistic American twist, is the basis for Redmoon Theater's The Dumb Show: A Real Live Fable. The fable is told in few words but with a great deal of spectacle. Redmoon has built a rickety proscenium arch and mounted a scroll of paper across the top. When the Cranker, a gangly man in whiteface (Grigory Khasin), turns his crank, it pulls another section of the scroll into view, on which are written the words of the fable. The characters are four "Basics": men with huge papier-mache heads and hands, dressed in long white coats with painted-on buttons, whose awkward dancing is quite endearing. The Los Toallitas jazz band accompanies all of the action.

In the first incident the Amoral Angel (Michael Berry), a pudgy boy of 12 wearing tinfoil wings and a Mad Hatter top hat that completely covers his head, approaches each of the Four Basics (Anthony Alvarez, Mark Comiskey, Rod Sirbaugh, and Ken Thompson) and pulls the eyes out of each papier-mache head and crushes them underfoot. The blinded men begin an awkward but charming dance; the overhead scroll comments, "They dance their ballet with the grace of a fat calf." This image of life as a ballet danced clumsily by blind men mixes Plato's metaphor of the cave, of people seeing mere shadows, with the Hindu image of existence as Shiva's dance. Even if you don't catch the references, it's a simple, affecting image of loss.

The fable continues with a series of mundane, humiliating incidents that make up the round of the Basics' lives: they receive their fates, good news or bad, in oversize envelopes; stagger under the weight of their chairs; play cards with a huge deck; gang up on one another; and shift sides. When one dies of a heart attack, his fellows ransack the corpse. These Basics work hard, but none becomes powerful or is even noticed by a powerful person. The only one who notices them is the snarling Amoral Angel, and he continually harasses them. The force that controls their lives is not a powerful king but a combination of boredom, random paranoia, and the other Basics.

The Dumb Show was conceived by Khasin and Blair Thomas, who also directed and wrote the text. Thomas, who worked with huge puppets in Redmoon's Moby Dick and with dancers in The Boto, brings the two together well here. The score, composed by Max Callahan, gives emotional propulsion to every scene. The spectacle and "fractured fable" humor make The Dumb Show a pleasure to watch, while its bleak theme adds depth.

The Sock Monkeys--a dance-oriented performance group--like spectacle as much as Redmoon Theater. During the course of their Fish Tales (Smelt Bad), a picture of a fish is painted, water is poured into a lunch bucket, a house of cards is carefully constructed, and a crystal glass vibrates when its rim is rubbed.

Fish Tales' tangential images about fish alternate with dance sequences. But the best moment comes when Bryan Saner and Kay Wendt LaSota exchange tall tales about fish: a "true story" about when it rained fish in Texas; another true story about how fish used to come out of the faucets in Chicago; a story that Charlie the Tuna's voice is really Marlon Brando, who was down on his luck at the time; a tale about a lizard, called a Jesus lizard, that walks on water. The sections are connected only by association--a game of Go Fish becomes frenzied, the dancers slapping down the cards; the slapping becomes a movement motif that eventually turns into a stomping, spinning dance. Fish Tales is watery, dreamy stuff that works because of the performers' charm.

That charm also carries Farach Nomads. Lydia Charaf and Winston Damon carry onstage an oriental rug, a floor lamp, musical instruments, and a cartful of recording equipment. After setting up, Charaf and Damon start to play flat Middle Eastern drums. The stage lights come down, and we see mostly the drums, backlit with a ghostly blue light from the floor lamp. When the song is done, Damon rewinds the tape while Charaf puts a microphone on the floor lamp. They replay the tape, adding another track of guitar and vocals. Eventually they add flute, clarinet, tambourine, four vocal tracks, and an electric cello. The song slowly becomes recognizable as an Algerian rai song, a kind of Arabic pop song sung in French. While they remove their instruments and props, they play the interesting final version of the tape. Throughout the performance both Charaf and Damon have to start over at various times; they get ripples of laughter from the audience as they apologize.

Jeanette Welp's solo, Guava Five, begins with typical wit. She clutches the top of a supporting pillar in the middle of the performing space, which is covered with shoes. Whistling, she slides down the pole. In the rest of the solo she rambles through the Blue Rider's ungainly space, using the Sock Monkeys' usual vocabulary of swinging, stomping movements. The hook is that Welp dances with only one shoe, which supplies a reason for her off-balance movement. Without the shoe gimmick, the solo doesn't make much sense; the dance alone is not strong enough.

The Sock Monkeys' work depends on spectacle, wit, charm, and a good hook. It depends less and less on dance. The dance sections here have less conviction and less control than other dances they've done. But their audience likes them, and it would be churlish to demand dance purity when they've begun to emphasize other things.

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