Ancestor to the TV newsmagazine and the topical revue, the living newspaper was born in a jazz-age cabaret in Germany. Consisting of sketches, satirical songs, and dramatic reenactments based on stories clipped from the paper, the living newspaper had a didactic intent. In Weimar Germany, politically active artists used living newspapers to bring radical opinions to the semiliterate working class. In Depression-era America, the form was adopted by the powers that be, as WPA federal theaters across the country created American-style living newspapers to propagate the ideals of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Susan V. Booth, literary manager at the Goodman Theatre, has taken the techniques of the living newspaper and used them to examine the popular middle-brow, middle-class, relentlessly middle-American publication Woman's Day in Woman's Day: A Living Magazine, one of three shows in Zebra Crossing's series "Performance 93."
Booth's objective is to demystify the magazine and expose its barely hidden ideological underpinnings. In the words of one of the actors in the show, they want to find out "who this woman is whose day is described." Beginning with a discussion of the magazine's cover and a dramatization of its masthead (which reveals--surprise--that most of the power positions at the magazine are held by men), Booth's cast dissects the February 23, 1993, issue page by page, article by article. Along the way they reveal the numerous double binds that tie Woman's Day readers in knots: the perfectionist chiding that you don't have to be perfect, the arguments that a woman is most truly herself when she's satisfying her family's needs, the irony that the magazine encourages constant dieting and healthy eating habits even as it pushes chocolate addiction, cholesterol-rich dinners, and high-calorie desserts.
At no point, however, does Booth's deconstruction become dry and academic. She and her cast treat the material with wit--the show has the look and pace of a very hip comedy revue--and the cast (Barbara Babbitt, Christine Dunford, Anita Loomis, and Diana Slickman) obviously relish every second of their joyful send-up of a magazine that has blighted many women's lives over the years. Now if only someone would do us men a similar favor and deconstruct Esquire or Playboy.
Lexis/Praxis IV, Zebra Crossing's fourth annual foray into creating theater from nontraditional texts and the second part of "Performance 93," is a slightly more conventional evening of stage adaptations.
Past editions of Lexis/Praxis have featured the work of such local luminaries as Maxine Chernoff, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lynda Barry, and Sara Paretsky. This year the only big name on the bill is Stuart Dybek, whose beautiful, evocative homage to the Chicago of the early to mid 60s appears halfway through the first act. Otherwise the show is dominated by authors of some local renown--the most famous being Aaron Freeman--but who rarely receive the kind of attention routinely given a Brooks or a Paretsky.
The evening begins with a killing one-act, "Terrence and Joan Go to the Convention," in which Terrence Smith (aka drag queen Joan Jett Blakk) recounts in storybook fashion his--or rather his and Ms. Blakk's--adventures at the Democratic National Convention. Ann James sits on a chair in front of the audience and reads Smith's story from a big picture book, speaking each sentence with the exaggerated emotion and excruciatingly correct enunciation of a kindergarten teacher, a style of reading that gives new comic dimensions to such sentences as "Terrence had never seen so many fucking cops in his life." Like a good kindergarten teacher, James pauses every few lines and shows us the next illustration.
Sadly, nothing else in the show reaches the comic heights of this first bit, though Freeman comes close in "Acoustic Catholicism," a comic reminiscence of the summer his family was converted by progressive white Catholics who came to his African American neighborhood bearing guitars. Directed by Timber Weise and performed by Michelle Wilson, Freeman's broad, mildly bitter comedy suffers partly because Wilson does such a superb job of revealing the heart behind Freeman's jokes--something the quick-witted, verbally aggressive Freeman takes pains to hide. Also, Freeman's work comes quick on the heels of Mark E. Lococo and Lynn Baber's excellent adaptation of Dybek's sweet, nostalgic tale "Blight." After this warm portrait of a working-class neighborhood in transition, even Mike Royko's Boss would feel warm and fuzzy.
The second half of the show is considerably more daring than the first, though ultimately it's less satisfying. Cathy Hartenstein and Lewis Lazare's adaptation of Lazare's weekly Reader column is based on an inventive and intriguing premise: that a theater piece can be created from a deliciously biting weekly commentary on the arts. Culled from the first four years of Lazare's column, "Culture Club: The Dramatic Marriage of Art and Business" never quite lives up to its promise, however. For one thing, many of the stories--the bickering of now-defunct Cullen, Henaghan & Platt, the closing of MoMing, Frank Galati's various difficulties at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway--feel like very old news. For another, the framework Lazare and Hartenstein have created--a mock allegory with characters named "Art," "Business," "Producer," and "Art Director"--is both too obvious and too confusing to showcase Lazare's rapier wit: "[Galati] is itching to adapt James Joyce's knee slapper, Ulysses." It would have been more interesting to have Lazare himself alone onstage, quipping away and cracking wise.
Similarly, Paula Killen's "Circa 1983," about a Chicago regular guy who goes to Russia and falls in love with a Russian woman, suffers from the absence of Killen. Directed by Betsy Freytag and performed by Bill Bannon, who speaks in an annoyingly generic workingman's accent, the piece lacks the honesty and vulnerability Killen brings to her best monologues. Without her tang of truth, this piece--which runs a little long--feels like nothing more than a story an actor tells about a guy who probably never existed.
The last piece on the bill, Greg Allen's "Until the Day Breaks and the Shadows Flee Away," suffers only from its placement. Adapted from texts found on tombstones in Chicago's Graceland and Calvary cemeteries, this intensely quiet, Beckettian two-person meditation on death contains moments of transcendent beauty, as when the couple (played by real-life couple Brian and Stephanie Shaw) read off a litany of names of people, famous and obscure, who have died. Placing this mildly depressing piece last, however, guarantees a dark final impression of a show that has been mostly lighthearted.
. . . And We Fall in Love, Zebra Crossing's sweet multimedia cabaret, suffers from no such problem. Subtitled "A Musical Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Relationships," this hybrid show--half musical revue, half video documentary--contains the best of both media.
The musical portions just soar, thanks in no small part to Greg Walter's crisp, clean musical direction and to the show's four excellent singer-actors--Steve Hinger, Rebecca McCauley, Michelle Van Note, and Steve Wallem--who bring such energy and life to these classic show tunes that even the oldest seem newly minted. Wallem in particular really shines. Last seen by this reviewer six months ago in his wonderful one-man show, Off the Wallem, he has a beautiful, clear voice that cuts right to the marrow every time.
Meanwhile the video interviews with successful gay and lesbian couples, which are interspersed with the songs, ground the show in a reality you just don't find on Broadway. Especially wonderful are B.J. Hollowell and Kookie Kelly, who quickly admit the worst about each other (B.J.: "I thought she was a drag queen." Kookie: "She had this air of arrogance I didn't care for"), but just as quickly show in every glance and private smile how much they still love each other after 11 1/2 years. Though springlike weather is still a good way off, I left this show humming to myself, "Our love is here to stay."
PERFORMANCE 93 Zebra Crossing Theatre at the Theatre Building