Visions of Madness | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Visions of Madness

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NO ONE GOES MAD . . . FROM THE WRITINGS OF THE "INSANE"

P.A. Productions

at Neo-Futurarium

FAT MEN IN SKIRTS

Torso Theatre

It's almost a crime to mention P.A. Productions' No One Goes Mad . . . From the Writings of the "Insane" in the same breath as Torso Theatre's Fat Men in Skirts. Though both productions explore society's definitions of madness, the differences between them couldn't be more stark. No One Goes Mad is a sensitive, intelligent attempt to dramatize works of so-called insane writers; Fat Men in Skirts is an excruciatingly dismal piece of exploitation.

No One Goes Mad is an intriguing collection of scenes and monologues taken largely from an anthology of writing by the mentally ill, In the Realms of the Unreal. Adapter Dan Sauer has combined rather straightforward accounts of life in mental institutions with surreal, delusionary fantasies to create a world haunted by misfits, tortured geniuses, visionary poets, and pathetic souls struggling to maintain their sanity. It's a world where Henri Muller's psychedelic fantasies take place alongside a disturbed woman's contention that Bob Hope is a force of evil, part of a conspiracy to invade her thoughts.

Much of the writing in No One Goes Mad is strong--occasionally cryptic, but always thought provoking. The difference between these authors and other writers is often only a matter of reputation. One man's madman is another man's genius. Muller's strangely apocalyptic vision of lovers cavorting in a danse macabre amid gusts of flatulence brings to mind the works of other "insane geniuses" such as Blake and Coleridge, while Mary Maclane's effort to "probe my soul to its depths" recalls a Sylvia Plath born too soon to be accepted as an artist.

The writers are, as one of them puts it, "creatures of intense, passionate feeling" who despite or because of their mental illnesses occasionally reach profound, lucid moments. Who hasn't felt from time to time like the institutionalized woman who complains that her life is "like the worst part of a bad novel" and that her mind is like a "derailed freight train that forgot it was supposed to run on tracks"?

No One Goes Mad works as both a celebration of eccentricity and a plea for understanding of it. The works force the audience members to reevaluate their prejudices, for each author represents a completely different vision of madness. Sauer and P.A. Productions take an objective approach to the challenging material, presenting the authors more as anonymous voices than as characters. And the actors, careful not to judge the material they've been given, treat their monologues as if they'd been penned by mainstream writers.

This respectful approach doesn't always succeed. The show seeks to highlight the differences between the writers, but having the actors perform their speeches like audition monologues makes the voices sound very similar. The occasional choral delivery of lines also robs the voices of their individuality.

The actors are all highly skilled and speak with wonderful intensity and impeccable diction, but their words are often more staged reading than dramatic performance. The exception is the imaginative staging of Muller's contribution, in which the cast convert a plain background of white screens into a shockingly colorful backdrop of surreal artwork and enact evocative scenes of orgiastic revelry. The memorably disorienting effect suggests that if the group hadn't chosen to play it safe the rest of the time they could have come up with something truly transcendent.

Transcendent is about the last thing you could accuse Torso Theatre's Fat Men in Skirts of being. This imbecilic production of Nicky Silver's play is a truly disgusting piece of pomposity that insults the intelligence of its audience to such an extent that you have to start questioning why anyone stays in the theater. I'm tempted to say the show borders on pornography, but I'm worried Torso might view that as a compliment.

There is of course the Theater of the Absurd and the Theater of the Ridiculous. What Torso Theatre serves up in its second-floor firetrap, oops, theater space would best be referred to as Theater of the Moron. I don't know where the name Torso Theatre came from, but it seems anatomically incorrect. Groin Theatre or Gag-Reflex Theatre might be better.

Fat Men in Skirts is an unbelievably long would-be farce about a young man named Bishop and his mother Phyllis who become cannibals and lovers after their plane crashes on a deserted island. Some years later they're rescued and returned to society, where they find that Phyllis's husband, Howard, has taken up with a porn star named Pam.

What passes for humor in this play is mutilation jokes, serial-murder jokes, insanity jokes, even "homo" and "Negro" jokes. You can see Bishop rape his mom, the two of them devour the bloody remains of plane-crash survivors, Bishop cannibalize Pam and slit the throat of his father.

It isn't even decently written. Maddeningly repetitive and unbelievably sophomoric, its philosophizing about man's innate savagery plays like the village idiot's analysis of Thomas Hobbes. It's about as subtle as a kick in the nuts.

If you've ever wondered what happens to people who watch too much crap and violence on TV, here's the answer: they write lousy plays. When Silver isn't being sexist or meditating on the nature of evil or madness, he resorts to infantile name-calling. A running joke involves Bishop calling his mother a name and having his father reprimand him by saying "I don't think you should call your mother a ____." A little bit of "I don't think you should call your mother a dirt head" or "I don't think you should call your mother vomit head" goes a long way. Ten times would have been sufficient.

There might be people with talent involved in this show, but you'd never know it (though my vote goes to designer Wes Bailey, who built a pretty convincing palm tree). Isabel Liss plays Phyllis as if she'd finally been given her opportunity to do Blanche Dubois, and David van Wert is too much of a pipsqueak to make Bishop's macho posturing anything more than a bad joke. As Howard, Haskell Simpson's contributions lie in making faces and chewing up more scenery than a termite colony. As director, Billy Bermingham has to bear a large share of responsibility for agreeing to stage this dreck. Complaints, insults, and petitions may be addressed to him.

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

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