When you enter the Chopin Theatre for The Ruse of Medusa, it may sound like a half-dozen wild monkeys are performing a musical cacophony on piano, strings, and horns because they are. Settle in for an hour of wild antics, visual and aural stimulation, screaming (both human and monkey), and total silliness. Written by Erik Satie in 1913, this lyrical comedy is one of the first plays to contain absurdist and surreal elements predating the start of dadaism.
As is to be expected from an artist who referred to himself as a phonometrician ("someone who measures sounds") and drank himself to death with absinthe, do not presume a straightforward plot in Satie's work. The story loosely follows Baron Medusa, a farcical eccentric egomaniac; his valet, Polycarpe; foster daughter, Frisette; her suitor, Alstolpho; and Jonas, a mechanical monkey. It occasionally touches on political and labor issues involving unions, which may or may not be relevant to anything.
Originally performed in private French salons, The Ruse of Medusa got its most famous production at Black Mountain College in 1948, where it featured an interdisciplinary dream team including architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller as the Baron and dancer- choreographer Merce Cunningham as Jonas, with Arthur Penn directing and decor by artist Willem de Kooning. Those are awfully big shoes to fill, and Dado, who directs this Facility Theatre production, does an admirable job staging this difficult and bizarre production. Dado decided to gender-swap the roles, which enhances Satie's script and makes for some interesting dynamics.
Wonderfully expressive and over-the-top, veteran drag performer David Cerda is in his element as Baron Medusa, complete with outrageous wig and costumes. He relishes breaking the fourth wall, directly engaging the audience. Jenni Hadley is powerfully dynamic as Polycarpe, whose demeanor and costume recall those of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. A triple threat, she also accompanies the superb small orchestra on violin and absolutely slays in a solo rendition of "MacArthur Park." Laurie Roberts brings hilarious physical timing as Alstolpho, along with salacious accordion skills.
Some elements of Medusa work well, like the musical direction by Sam Clapp and the beautifully colorful costumes by Kotryna Hilko. The choreography, also by Roberts, occasionally succeeds, like a silly handshake dance highlighting the awkwardness of social conventions. The overall action would benefit from some well-rehearsed clowning techniques and pantomime to help nail the comic timing.
The last 20 minutes bring delightful surprises that directly engage the audience in fun ways that make this surreal sensory show worth experiencing, if for no other reason than the strange joy of witnessing a production unlike anything else playing in Chicago. But beware, much like absinthe, Medusa is an acquired taste. v