Reality Is an Activity imagines a new, poeticized world order | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Reality Is an Activity imagines a new, poeticized world order

The spirit of Wallace Stevens animates Barrie Cole's whimsical new play.



Atop an imaginary Tennessee hill, poet Wallace Stevens famously placed an imaginary jar, which "took dominion everywhere" and tamed a wilderness that "rose up to it." In Stevens's philosophy, the most commonplace object holds adequate wonder to create a new, poeticized world order.

Chicago monologist and playwright Barrie Cole has long been placing imaginary jars atop imaginary hills. Her ambiguously concrete work layers childlike simplicity over seasoned melancholy to produce piercing, wondrous images of charming, discomfiting transformation. You might mistake Cole's work for the fables of a hyperliterate six-year-old who's just discovered the reality of death.

Cole's new play Reality Is an Activity, which borrows strategically from Stevens and William Carlos Williams, condenses the mundane and the magical into a 95-minute gem. Two middle-aged women, Helen and Miranda, have convinced "the Foundation" to bankroll their efforts to create an improved world order by turning everything into poetry. When hapless Foundation representative Mr. Howard shows up at their compound and finds them doing little but rolling down hills, reading aloud simultaneously from the same page in different books, and removing their dining table leaf to create "a portal, a bowl of renewal, a loophole," he's torn between cutting off their funds and seeking to discover their perplexing brand of daily astonishment.

Veteran Theater Oobleck performers Vicki Walden, Colm O'Reilly, and Diana Slickman unlock the poignancy and profundity in the script's thoughtful foolishness. It's a rich, tantalizing evening that provides a restorative antidote to rationality.   v

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