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Doorika, at Chicago Filmmakers

According to child psychologist Jean Piaget, children under the age of ten months have not yet developed a sense of object permanence. If you place a favorite toy in front of a seven-month-old and then conceal it behind a piece of cardboard, for example, the infant will not search for the toy; in Piaget's view, the child believes that the toy no longer exists. In the infant's mind, removing the cardboard creates a new toy out of thin air. Each time the infant turns his head, then, an entirely new world comes into being.

Perhaps Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware never fully developed a sense of object permanence. His Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth comic strip, which appears regularly in New City, depicts a world of continuous creation, where people are dead one week and alive the next, where past encounters between characters bear no relevance to their present situations, where personal history generally extends back no farther than a few minutes. In the first collection of Jimmy Corrigan strips, Ware completely reinvents the title character in each episode. At first Corrigan is a young boy trying to manufacture a surrogate father to replace the one who deserted him and his mother. A page later he's an old man transported through death to the gates of heaven, where the keeper of the Big Book of Souls asks for a bribe to let Corrigan pass. A few pages later Corrigan is a middle-aged adult who tries to commit suicide out of despair over his mother's recent death--but not before arguing with her over the phone.

If Ware weren't drawing comics, he might well be writing scripts for Doorika. Like all of Doorika's bewildering, hypnotic, highly disjointed theater pieces, Ware's comics rarely present coherent narratives, opting instead for a series of bold, disquieting images. Like Doorika's director Erika Yeomans, Ware often creates playful scenarios out of mundane events that seem to go nowhere. And like Doorika's bleak theatrical worlds, Ware's troubling pen-and-ink concoctions--typically involving lovers or family members unable to connect on any meaningful level--have a poignant emotional aftereffect. In short, Ware and Doorika are a match made in heaven.

Dear, Doorika's 11th original theatrical abstraction in four years, is based primarily on Ware's work. Formally, it's structured as a series of cartoonlike panels, the actors for the most part appearing in silhouette behind white scrims. The scrims form the sides of a large rotating box center stage, in and out of which the five cast members scurry for most of Dear's 60 minutes. Like cartoon captions, most of the dialogue is short and punchy; and as in any Doorika production, most of it verges on pure nonsense and non sequitur. Like Ware's comics, this production drips with a twisted sense of nostalgia: the cover of The Smartest Kid on Earth, designed like a 1930s comic book, proclaims it to be "an indefensible attempt to justify the despair of those who have never known real tragedy." Likewise Heather Priest's costumes evoke post-Depression America, but by putting the cast in varying shades of green, Priest also suggests they've been grown over with moss.

Yeomans makes no attempt to re-create or dramatize any of Ware's comics; instead she theatricalizes his worldview, one in which object permanence doesn't stand a chance. In fact, in the very opening moments, Dear re-creates itself three times. First a disembodied voice introduces the company as "Dooreeker" and announces that they are not an experimental theater company, a dance troupe, or a band but a "sad shadow troupe from Canada." Then the voice tells us that Dear isn't a live performance but rather a series of outtakes from collaborative films they've made with people like Martin Scorsese, Martin Short, and Steve Martin. Then the owner of the voice emerges from the box, dressed in a green flak suit with Muppet-like plastic eyes glued in place, telling us he wants to "meet a guy for a...special friendship." Maybe Dear is a video dating service.

And on it goes for an hour, each two-minute segment seemingly unrelated to anything that came before it, the actors changing their accents virtually every other line. In silhouette, a man offers a woman a bouquet of flowers, to which she replies, "Long drink of water." A few minutes later the same woman reaches out of the box, twists the ears of two men in identical flak suits and Muppet eyes, and barks, "Communicate!" Then the men don fezzes and become shadow Shriners watching a stripper in the box, shouting, "Can we lose the tassels?" Every gesture is big, every word italicized, every moment delivered with the bold punch of the funny papers.

In anything but expert hands, Dear would be a disaster. But as always, Yeomans magically orchestrates an hour's worth of incomprehensibility into a symphony of discordance, performed with virtuoso precision by her stellar cast. On one level, Dear makes no sense whatsoever. It's impossible to say what any particular episode "means," since nothing seems to relate to anything else. Yet Dear's very inconsistency is paradoxically its greatest strength. Yeomans has selected her inconsistencies with great care, and through them taps into one of the deepest sources of human heartache, the same kind of longing that gives Ware's comics such poignance.

The characters in Dear, as in Ware's comics, want desperately to recognize one another. But they seem unable to do so unless everything in the world remains unchanged forever. "People in the suburbs don't dress like that!" a frazzled mother tells the children she no longer seems to know. "Up to age 12, you loved Mom," says a sister to a brother she can't understand any longer. "You make everyone feel good, that's what I heard," says a man to an imaginary person, as though that one sentence describes everything that person is or ever could be. No matter where these characters turn, they seem bewildered by one another's inconsistencies. One little girl bursts into sobs because she wants her old dog Belvedere back. She can't understand that Belvedere isn't gone, he's just been shaved.

Dear reveals the human desire for permanence to be not a developmental advantage but a source of great desperation. We ache to connect with each other, the piece suggests, and in order to do so cast each other in stone. If you stray too far from the person I imagine you to be, I lament that I don't know you anymore, when in fact all I've known is my own need for consistency. But any human life is a series of jarring incongruities, receding into flash points of memory as jumbled and mundane as Ware's comic episodes. To imagine that we are the same people who enjoyed each other's company yesterday is a palliative fiction we employ in order to feel connected to the world. Perhaps it is the infant, not Piaget, who's right after all.

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

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