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The Terror of Absurdity Played Straight

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The Madman and the Nun

Experimental Theatre Chicago

at the Chopin Theatre

We have had enough wretched logic about characters and enough psychological "truth"--already it seems to be coming out of our ears. --Stanislaw Witkiewicz, An Introduction to the Theory of Pure Form in the Theater

Experimental Theatre Chicago sent out a press release in fall 2003 that made me hate the new company instantly. Its stated goal was "to establish Chicago as a national center for experimental theater." What next, I thought--turning Chicago into the home of deep-dish pizza? They proceeded to throw down the gauntlet of experimentation by producing a script by Paula Vogel, a playwright so radical only the most rebellious fringe companies--the Goodman, Northlight--have dared to stage her work.

I've stayed away from the shows the group has produced since then. But when they chose to mount a play by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, I knew I had to attend, if only to protect the Polish avant-garde author's honor. Now I have to admit that director Jaclyn Biskup's careful, beautiful, ingeniously styled The Madman and the Nun earns the company its place on the Chicago fringe.

It's a production the playwright would have despised, however, for its believability. Witkiewicz, who wrote some 30 scripts between 1918 and 1926, wanted to blow realism to bits, believing that in the mechanical age imitating superficial appearances denied the fundamental chaos of human existence. Part of his rebellion against realism may have sprung from a need to forge an identity separate from his father, an influential painter and critic who insisted it was better to paint a head of cabbage accurately than the head of Christ poorly. But Witkiewicz also firmly believed that Western civilization was on its last legs, that all institutions of authority were corrupt, and that human beings were quickly devolving into cogs in a giant, indifferent machine. His existential absurdism--suggesting Jarry, Artaud, and Beckett--might also have grown from a voracious appetite for narcotics.

Witkiewicz's plays are hallucinatory concoctions, vibrant in their dissonance, jarring in their dislocations; a fascination with the early fauvists, futurists, and cubists helped shape his aesthetic. Characters behave like explosives, shooting off in different directions and bringing down everything around them. Cause and effect are out the window: someone may die in one scene and return the next. When directing his own work, Witkiewicz preferred to cast amateurs--dentists, painters, government bureaucrats--rather than actors, hoping they'd lack the skills to make his plays "believable." Above all he insisted on "the fantastic psychology of characters who are completely implausible in real life," thereby creating a performance "not limited by any logic."

On the four occasions when Trap Door Theatre has attempted Witkiewicz--the company debuted in 1994 with The Madman and the Nun, also at the Chopin--its members took the playwright's dicta to heart, slathering on the face paint, crowing and squawking and screaming. Bracing and mildly unpleasant, these shows seemed what Witkiewicz intended. Other productions of Witkiewicz I've read about seem to have adopted a similar style.

Experimental Theatre Chicago takes the opposite approach. Even before the show begins, the characters and situations of The Madman and the Nun are made eminently plausible. As the audience settles into its seats, six actors wearing hospital gowns, pajamas, and/or straitjackets lurch about the space, laughing to themselves, contorting their bodies, or staring blindly into the distance. These "lunatics" establish the play's madhouse setting, of course. But while preshow stunts are usually unconvincing and vaguely embarrassing, here they're genuinely disturbing. One actor leaves his mouth open so long that great gobs of spit spill out.

When the play proper starts, the director of the asylum, Dr. Bidello, ushers Sister Anna into the cell of Alexander Walpurg, a formerly successful poet now madly fixated on some long-ago event. Walpurg's condition is irreversible, Bidello believes, so he keeps him sedated--the good doctor says he poisons the hopeless cases slowly. Still, Bidello hopes the nun will use her feminine intuition to penetrate the madman's soul and bring his dilemma to light. Anything would be better than turning him over to smug psychoanalyst Dr. Grun, who considers Freud a kind of messiah.

In sharp contrast to everything Witkiewicz ever wrote about producing his work, Experimental Theatre Chicago presents this scene deliberately and with restraint, emphasizing its psychological truth. Marc Chevalier's set may be pure expressionism--a stark white bed and chair in front of white fabric stretched out like the cured skin of an albino--but the acting is as realistic as in any production of Chekhov. Only one tiny element seems out of place: Bidello's blatantly fake sideburns are glued onto the sides of his head and creep around behind his ears.

With this subtle clue Biskup signals her audience to maintain a critical distance from the action, which is perhaps not as real as it appears. Once Anna and Walpurg are left alone, the two find an almost immediate perverse bond: Anna gave up on life after the man she loved committed suicide, and Walpurg went mad after he killed his fiancee (or maybe she killed him, he's not sure). By the end of the scene they're making passionate love. On paper the action careens like a locomotive running off the tracks, but the measured approach taken by Monica Lopez as Anna and George Ketsios as Walpurg makes the characters' explosive leaps seem almost natural. Still, something's slightly off here as well: Anna never moves normally but shifts from pose to pose as though she were a character in a series of paintings.

Biskup continues to combine these two elements--focused, understated, psychologically credible performances and blatant artifice--to great effect. We believe but cannot believe. As the play progresses, the artificiality becomes more pronounced. Dr. Grun shows up with a nappy full beard even more fake than Bidello's sideburns. Anna's mother superior, a haughty battle-ax of a dashboard ornament, speaks in a stilted "standard American" accent direct from 30s film noir. The production's escalating artifice--the offstage lunatics begin to offer choral noise--nicely parallels the script's mounting illogic. When Walpurg murders Bidello by driving a pencil through his temple, Grun cheerfully concludes that Walpurg has had a "twin sister complex" since he was in the womb and resolved it by murdering Bidello, who reminded him of his sibling. "All crime comes from a complex," Grun concludes, going on to suggest that mass murder might cure humanity of its derangements.

Biskup and company discover something in Witkiewicz I've never been able to find: lucidity. The playwright may be spinning in his grave, but then Cole Porter famously hated some of the most brilliant interpretations of his compositions. Like a Porter tune, a Witkiewicz play has the structural integrity to withstand a stylistic overhaul. By slowing things down and narrowing the actors' focus, Biskup shows that Witkiewicz crafted scenes as carefully as Beckett. The desperate whirlwind of a world on the brink of collapse may be missing--at least until the show's final moments, when the company pulls out all the stops on the script's bizarre coda. But this staging's very solidity offers its own kind of terror. Here the reigning medical and religious authorities are not monstrous exaggerations but subtle distortions of people we've met, making Witkiewicz's apocalyptic fantasy feel unsettlingly lifelike.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anastacios Ketsios.

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