THE TRIUMPH OF THE SPIDER MONKEY
Different Drummer Music Theatre
at the Theatre Building
PURSUITE OF THE URBAN COYOTE
and STAR CRASH
Main Line Productions
at the Organic Lab Theater
Bobbie Gotteson, the central figure of Joyce Carol Oates's The Triumph of the Spider Monkey, is intended to be the hero of a ceremonially cathartic tragedy. A multiple machete murderer and rapist who, by the time we meet him during his trial, lives nearly entirely in his own fantasy world, he is also a young man of talent and promise as a songwriter. What made him go wrong? Oates asks. With the answers she provides, Oates seems bent on indicting society more than the murderer; yet some questions about the human soul cannot be answered, and Oates deliberately leaves Gotteson an enigma in whose plight is reflected the darkest parts of our civilization and the human nature that created it.
Indeed, Bobbie is almost a Christ figure (check out the name Gotteson) who, in his murderous career, seems to be taking upon himself the sins of the world. Found in a bus depot rather than a manger, Bobbie is from the start referred to as "little monkey," an identity with which he comes to identify and which emerges as a symbol of all that's primitive, deadly, and sensual in us. Bounced from orphanage to foster home to reformatory to prison, Bobbie clings to his belief in his musical talent even as his hold on reality grows ever more slippery. In prison he becomes the lover of a sadistic con, Danny Minx, whose psychological dominance over Bobbie is mixed with genuine compassion and affection; but the relationship breaks up when the two try to make it in the "real" world, and Bobbie eventually finds himself caught up in a Warholian underground of nebulously artistic trendies in California, where his most murderous impulses finally take over. (This career is recounted in hallucinatory flashback during Bobbie's trial.)
Trouble is, Bobbie Gotteson doesn't exist. Introduced first in an experimental "interview" in the Antioch Review in 1974, and subsequently developed in a novella and then in a play, Bobbie--the self-proclaimed leader of a race of "spider monkeys" taking over the world--is a literary conceit. In 1974, to the right audience, he might have seemed a radical and brilliant creation, a metaphor for all that's terrifying and inexplicable about our world and ourselves; but now he seems a trivial, pretentious, and certainly ineffectual gesture. We know he doesn't exist; what's worse, he pales in comparison to the very real maniacs and misfits we can encounter almost daily.
The artificiality of Oates's story is exacerbated by the heavy stylization with which it is told: rather than intensifying Bobbie's life-as-myth, the clash of expressionism, Brechtian alienation, absurdism, naturalism, and out-and-out vaudeville that characterizes Triumph of the Spider Monkey works against the tragic ritual quality Oates wants to evoke. By the time, in the second act, when a young woman--survivor of and witness to Bobbie's gruesome sprees--breaks down on the witness stand as she tries to comprehend what she has seen, we're beyond caring; the actress's tour de force becomes tedious rather than moving because it is so utterly removed from any reality we are experiencing--though the actress herself, Eileen Hand, may be experiencing something very real indeed to give such a tremendous performance.
Hand is not the only strong performer in Different Drummer Music Theatre's Chicago premiere presentation of this piece; far from it. The cast is superb all down the line, with Mitchell Lester taking special glory in making Bobbie human despite the script. Small and wiry, Lester oozes vulnerability mixed with real dangerousness--and has a terrific pop voice to boot. This last asset is particularly important, since Different Drummer is using Oates's script as a vehicle for a virtuosic and challenging score by musical director William Underwood. Underwood's music--almost all of it in act one, which makes act two seem even more flaccid--is almost too brilliant; he veers from 50s doo-wop to Handelian counterpoint to ersatz Kurt Weill to atmospheric, semidissonant American art song with impressive facility and confidence that cut into the sense of vulnerability and emptiness Oates is after. The superbly disciplined solo and choral singing of the whole company--Jonathan Meier, Tom A. Viveiros, Lisa Woodruff, and the wonderful Peter Mohawk in addition to Lester and Hand--is really a pleasure to listen to. It kept me thinking about this show what I suspect one should, but doesn't think about Bobbie: so much talent, so much waste.
Catharsis is also on the mind of playwright Joe Larocca, whose two one-acts Star Crash and Pursuite [sic] of the Urban Coyote are on display as a late-night offering at the Organic Lab Theater (just how late, unfortunately, seems to depend in part on whether or not the Organic main-stage show, Titus Andronicus, runs over schedule). Larocca's two playlets, like Oates's elaborate piece, are portraits of isolated loners living on the edge. In Star Crash, a Patti Smithish punk rock singer flails about in the recording studio, snorting coke, singing, and facing life as one man after another deserts her--her (unseen) lover, her guitarist, and finally the recording engineer. "Go home," he finally implores her. "It's Christmas." "I ain't acquainted with that myth," she snarls.
In the longer second playlet, a semipsychotic young man named Amsterdam rots in his crumbling one-room New Jersey apartment, fending off various imaginary visitors--an old politician, a jazz musician, an apparently invulnerable cockroach at whom Amsterdam vainly lunges with a large hammer--while recalling various (real?) happy experiences of the past.
I was more convinced by Star Crash--the singer Nova's furious rantings seemed more concrete than Amsterdam's sometimes incomprehensible and too often cliched ruminations on the world as it faces nuclear holocaust, AIDS, and incompetent leadership. But both plays, performed on nearly no budget to live, loud rock music, have a vividness that stems partly from Larocca's strong, though still flawed, gift for verbal imagery and in greater part from the raw, edgy, kinetic performances of the lead actors, Jeanne Willcoxon as Nova and Daniel C. Goodman as Amsterdam. They seem genuinely to inhabit the characters they play and the spaces they occupy; their energy, aided by the intimacy of the Organic Lab, makes for a very real experience with people whose outsiderness opens a window on the nature of belonging versus alienation--an experience that makes the symbolism of Spider Monkey seem all the more false in its very artfulness.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matt Dinerstein.