The final performance of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind December 30 left me with two black eyes, a scraped knee, and a busted pair of glasses.
A month earlier, Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen—who left the company four years ago but retained rights to the production—had announced in a press release that he wouldn't be renewing its license, effectively closing Chicago's longest-running show, which first opened in December 1988. (The two other versions of Too Much Light, one in New York and one in San Francisco, subsequently announced their intention to reconcept along with the Chicago troupe.) It was the culmination of a growing rift between Allen and the theater he'd helped create.
How nasty this rift had become was clear in Allen's press release, which took swipes at the diversity of the current Neo-Futurists and their commitment to social justice by stating he was letting the license lapse so he could put together his own "new diverse company" "comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ*, artist/activist women and other disenfranchised voices" and reopen Too Much Light with a "specifically socially activist mission" "to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression." Soon after Allen's announcement, Neo-Futurist alums started posting on Facebook and other social media, recounting various run-ins with Allen over the years, whether as a director or a fellow performer.
It wasn't surprising that the last performance of Too Much Light in its current incarnation would sell out. An hour before showtime the line snaked around the block. From the beginning TMLMTBGB has attracted a large, devoted audience, most in their 20s and 30s. True to form, the two people at the front of the line were both in their 20s—actor Alyssa Vera Ramos and her brother, Wilfredo. They'd shown up at 8:30 PM to make sure they got seats for the 11:30 show.
Too Much Light was one of the first productions I reviewed (in 1988, at Stage Left's old space on Clark Street, now occupied by Chicago Comics), and since then I've popped in every once in a while to see if it retained the vitality, relevance, and radical intelligence of its initial run. It always did. Freshness and self-invention are part of the Neo-Futurists' DNA: the show is built on the premise of 30 plays in 60 minutes, with new material provided by ensemble each week. Even the running order of the show is randomized, so no one can fall into deadening routine.
It was while I was interviewing prospective audience members that, in an act of perhaps unconscious Neo-Futurist performance, I fell. I'd just finished talking to two people near the end of the line when I stepped away and tripped. (Transcript of the event: Me: "Thanks for the interview . . . . ahhhhhh!" Whump!) I twisted my foot, skinned my knee, hurt my hand, broke my glasses, scraped my nose, and got a real whopper of a bump on my forehead, but I didn't miss the show.
The performance itself followed the structure of every Too Much Light iteration—a roll of the die establishes ticket price, and every patron is given a new identity for the night—but as always, it was the material within this structure, and the relationship between the performers and the audience, that made it. There's no fourth wall to break in Neo-Futurist shows—something nicely illustrated in one of the evening's pieces, "All of My Friends Are Here Tonight," in which one by one people were invited on stage by ensemble members until by the end we all were onstage. The best Neo-Futurist bits are satori-like, providing an aha moment that hits like a punch line. This is why, to this day some people—critics included—confuse what the Neo-Futurists do with Second City-style sketch comedy.
This current ensemble was energetic, engaging, and very much its own entity. But watching these guys interact with the audience, it was impossible to tell how much of the sacred connection was the result of Allen's brilliant setup for the show—which the troupe no longer has the rights to—and how much was something that will survive its dissolution. The Neo-Futurists have plans to start another late-night show, as yet unnamed, and have started crowdsourcing funds to make up for the loss of their cash cow. Allen has made it clear he has his own plans.
What happens next is one of a myriad unknowns for the New Year. v