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Theater Notes: voices from over the edge

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David Hauptschein's interest in "outsider" literature--writing by eccentrics, social misfits, the mentally ill--began about five years ago, when he was looking for source material for his own writing. "I had been exploring the underbelly of the mind: the subconscious, dreams, delirium," he explains. "I came across a magazine called Kooks, which specialized in "insane' writing." He was so intrigued by what he read in Kooks that instead of incorporating it into his own work he put excerpts from the magazine onstage as part of "The Outsider Cabaret," a performance series he was curating at Club Lower Links.

Hauptschein, a lanky, bespectacled writer and performance artist with a predilection for hats, was no stranger to staging nontraditional texts. In past series he'd put together--"The Spoken Word Cafe," "The Diary Show," "The Duplex Planet Project"--actors had performed letters, diary entries, interviews with nursing-home patients, and the rantings of paranoids and political extremists.

But he considered his additions to "The Outsider Cabaret" so successful that a year or so later at Chicago Filmmakers he devoted an entire show to "insane" writing. The one-night show, Delirious Illuminations, was culled for the most part from an anthology called In the Realms of the Unreal, which had just been published.

Now Hauptschein and two of the cast members from Delirious Illuminations--actor Ann Jennings and actor-director Dan Sauer--have put together No One Goes Mad . . . From the Writings of the "Insane", an evening's worth of outsider writings performed as a series of monologues and group scenes by a ten-member cast. The show contains writing from authors both well-known (outsider painters Adolf Wolfli and Heinrich Muller) and obscure (Mary Rand, Mary MacLane, Karoselle Washington), as well as several choice anonymous pieces.

At an after-show get-together for Illuminations, Hauptschein learned that Jennings and Sauer had been looking for the next project for P.A. (formerly Pig American) Productions, the small theater company the two of them and a third actor, Dawn Sassmann Gmitro, had founded two years before. Hauptschein had seen their previous production, Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Grace of Mary Traverse, and was impressed enough by Sauer's direction to suggest that the two of them collaborate on a fictional piece based on the material.

Sauer, however, had other plans. Attracted to "the pure creativity and the freshness of the material," Sauer was certain it would be a mistake to muck around with it. It didn't take much to persuade Hauptschein, and Sauer took on the task of selecting, editing, and juxtaposing the works.

"I wanted to start the show," Sauer tells me, "with a feeling of being in an institution--the white, boring feel of an asylum." The opening monologues concern everyday life in institutions; later in the show the selections get "wilder and weirder." We hear part of Adolf Wolfli's notorious 25,000-page "fanciful autobiography." Self-proclaimed "psychiatric survivor and system inmate" Beth Greenspan supplies some biting satiric verse: "I've got a headache THIS FUCKIN' BIG / And it's thanks to you, you, you / And me and none of your useless white pills / Is going to set me free."

By far the most extravagant writing in the show comes from Heinrich Muller: a crazed song about a bizarre orgy involving the "Jesus Virgins," the "Divinities of Heaven," and the "Eternal Father."

In directing the show, Sauer has instructed his cast "not to try to play like crazy people but to use the material to liberate themselves as actors."

"It's not like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," says Hauptschein, who's been regularly attending rehearsals. "That's the last thing we want to do."

"We've been very careful not to comment on these people," says Sauer. "I think it would be an easy choice, but it would be a bad one. We had Gary Wilmes come out with a strange corduroy suit and these nerdy glasses, but we cut that: it was too funny."

Which is not to say the show doesn't have its comic moments. One of the anonymous selections is deliciously absurd: "Bob Hope is violently insane. . . . The FBI told me that they have been getting 800 to 900 complaints a day from people all around the country saying the same thing I was: Bob Hope is crazy and interferes with their normal thinking."

There are also occasional moments of transcendent beauty, like the monologue by Mary MacLane. Eight days before opening night, you could already hear the yearning in Ann Jennings's voice as she delivered the lines: "I feel--everything. It is my genius. It burns me like fire."

Asked after the rehearsal why she thinks her monologue has such power, Jennings said: "These are real people, people stepping over the edge and going where we were afraid to go, a reaching beyond complacency. These are voices we don't normally listen to--and what gems they come up with."

No One Goes Mad . . . From Writings of the "Insane" opens tonight at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, and runs through July 24. Show time is 8:30 Thursdays through Saturdays; tickets cost $8. Call 769-6136.

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