REVIEW: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (Neo-Futurists)

21-Year old show is still as fresh as ever

 

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Neo-Futurists present
 
Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind
 
at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
Open Run (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is more than just a series of 30 plays in 60 minutes. It’s also more than Chicago’s longest running production, celebrating its 21st anniversary in late 2009. Too Much Light is a complete and utter oddity.

new jump What other show can consistently sell out every performance to an audience that would properly be characterized as non-theatergoing? At the performance I saw, there were a motley assortment of college students, teenagers and sweatpants-clad parents. It looked a lot more like the type of crowd you’d see lining up for the most recent Hollywood blockbuster than a trip down a surrealist, dada rabbit hole.

But the throngs of people do come, and what they witness is one of the most out there and experimental shows in the city. And what’s even more remarkable is that they thoroughly enjoy it.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the show is much more than a show. It is an ideology as well. Neo-Futurism is a contemporary style modeled after the Italian Futurists. These Futurists worked in all sorts of media from painting to music to theatre. In the same vein as Dadaism, Futurism sought to be the anti-art, casting off the shackles of the past to welcome a new aesthetic that looked toward the future, taking influences from technology and industry.

Although Neo-Futurism doesn’t seem to take itself as seriously as some of its Italian forbearers, it still retains its absurdist bent and deeply personal expression. In fact, a tenant of Too Much Light is that everything the audience witnesses is real. Every actor plays himself and only himself and all scenes are set in the very theater on the very stage where the actors are performing.

The show is chockfull of gimmicks, many of which are interactive, which gives it its high energy and spontaneity. To enter the theater, each audience member must roll a die. Add nine to the die roll, and that’s what you pay. As you enter, you’re asked your name by a performer who completely ignores your answer and scribbles a random word on a nametag, which you must wear throughout the duration of the show. (My name was “inning.”)

A clothesline hangs from the ceiling above the stage. Hanging from the line are 30 sheets of paper, each labeled with a number. Audience members are handed a “menu” of plays, each written by and to be performed by the cast. The audience is instructed to shout out a number at the end of a scene. Whatever number is heard first is the next play that is performed. A timer on the wall ticks away for an hour. The goal is to complete all 30 pieces before the alarm sounds.

Each week some old sketches are slotted out and new plays are written. After about a month, all old scenes have cycled out of the menu and a completely new show is staged.

 

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There is a lot of expectation for Too Much Light to be a comedy. And at times it does deliver the funny. For example, one play titled “Curtains: The NeoFuturist Mascot” featured a competition to pick a mascot for the show. A boy from the audience was chosen and so the performers dressed him up with a cape, a fuzzy tail and a cardboard box decorated like a cow’s head.

Yet, this is not iO or Second City. The aim of the Neo-Futurists isn’t to showcase a series of knee-slapping sketches. It’s pure artistic expression, a sort of mental and emotional purging for the performers that, quite often, resonates in some way with the audience. Whether this resonance is characterized by laughter or a somber silence depends on the scene. But there are typically plenty of both in a Too Much Light….. show.

And maybe that’s the appeal. Where else in Chicago can you see a crazy whirlwind of a show that makes you laugh, think, reflect and, at times, get all misty eyed? It’s a rollercoaster experience, and hopefully this ride will keep rumbling for years to come.

 
Rating: ★★★★
     

Logistics
All shows will be performed at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland @ Foster. Click here for directions and a map. Tickets are $9 + the roll of a single six-sided die ($10 – $15, depending on your luck!)

Showtimes
Friday nights at 11:30pm (doors open at 11:00), Saturday nights at 11:30pm (doors open at 11:00), Sunday nights at 7:00pm (doors open at 6:30), 50 weeks a year! (We take off the very last two weekends of December each year.)
No reservations are accepted.  Heard about the big line that forms to get into TML, click here for Tips and FAQs on how to get into the show. Wanna volunteer for TML (and see the show for free)? Click here.

               

REVIEW: The Twins Would Like to Say (Dog & Pony Theatre)

The curious case of Jennifer and June

 

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Dog & Pony Theatre presents:
 
The Twins Would Like to Say
 
Written and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Note: This review was originally published on March 1 on Chicago Examiner.com

Just like the titular twins, you can’t escape mirror images in The Twins Would Like to Say. With Dog & Pony’s innovative examination of the curious case of June and Jennifer Gibbons, ever-shifting halls of mirrors offer both literal reflections of the twins’ lives and a metaphor for them.

twins-and-dadWritten and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley, the staging for the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep series was inspired by the Gibbons twins, born in 1963. As children, the pair made a pact to do everything in absolute unison, and to speak with no one but each other. Extraordinarily, they succeeded for 20 years, all but entirely silent outside the confines of their bedroom, despite the frustrated efforts of their parents and a cadre of psychiatrists who remained utterly stumped. When separated, the twins became catatonic.

Their lives are whitewashed a bit here – June and Jennifer’s lengthy criminal records, tragic incarceration and Jennifer’s early death are glossed over in a dreamscape of stylized movement. Yet from the lookalike parrot puppets that open the show to the two simultaneously played sorrowful scenes that end it, The Twins Would Like to Say is cryptic, playful and innovative.  

Bockley’s deft at intermingling sadness, beauty and sound (if you saw Boneyard Prayer, you don’t need us to tell you that). de Mayo’s ability to configure a story into non-linear, non-traditional formats received a well-deserved and high-powered spotlight  with Dog and Pony’s The Vivian Girls, which she devised and directed. Together, the pair constitutes a dream team of unexpected storytelling.

The Twins Would LIke to Say is theater as a tumble down the rabbit hole and into an ever-shifting funhouse maze where reality is warped and the line separating fantasy from reality is fluid. By using a promenade staging, Bockley and de Mayo ensure the audience is an active part of the story –  Rather than sit back and watch as they might with traditional stagings, ticket holders have to participate, moving from room to room as the scenes progress.

The audience’s entrée through the lookingglass is Mr. Nobody (Nick Leininger, a winning mix of the sinister and the sympathetic ), who ushers the audience behind a curtain with the flourish of a side-show huckster keen to have the audience to learn about some strange unknown world rather than just gawk at it.

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The first visual we get of June (Paige Collins) and Jennifer (Ashleigh LaThrop) is both spooky and enthralling. Standing stock still at the dead end of a long hall, the girls stare out with dead eyes, an adolescent vision of those twins from the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” 

The promenade structure isn’t without drawbacks. Among them: You’d have to see the piece at least twice to take in it all in. See it only once, and you’re forced to choose between scenes. Eavesdrop on the twins’ psychologist (Kasey Foster) trying to make sense of their behavior, and you become keenly aware that you’re missing what’s going on elsewhere, as dialogue floats in from some unseen periphery. No matter how deft the performances or compelling the action, you’re often left wondering if you’ve made the right choice – and if something more interesting is going on just around the corner.

That shortcoming is especially evident in the final scene, when the audience is split in half and divided by an opaque black curtain. Too say that missing half of the piece’s conclusion is immensely frustrating is an understatement.

That aside, the performances in The Twins Would Like to Say are marvelous, cryptic, playful depictions of people living in a world that’s half stylized fantasy and half brutal reality.

Collins and Ashleigh are wonderful, giggling and whispering in their room like teenage girls the world over up; silent, sullen and above all fearful whenever they’re forced to contend with the outside world. As their taunting, eerie classmates Kathryn Hribar and Teeny Lamothe are cruel and typical teens, shrill voices and nasal giggles evoking a thousand mean girls nightmares. (In real life, Jennifer and June were bullied so badly, their school allowed them to leave 5 minutes early, so as to get a head start on the kids who wanted to beat them up.)

As the twins mother Gloria, Millie Langford is the kind, patient, enabling opposite of the twins father Aubrey (Brandon Boler), whose tough love cruelty results in a cacophony of torment when the twins are forcibly separated.

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To depict the intricate fantasies that June and Jennifer spun by filling journals full of elaborate fictions, de Mayo and Bockley stage plays-within-the-play, bringing the pulp fiction storylines and outrageous sexuality of  such dubious works as  “The Pepsi Cola Addict” and “Discomania” (Dan Stermer’s disco choreographer is absolutely delicious). Andrea Everman’s shadow puppets also make the twins’ stories pop with vibrance. All seen in silhouette, a snarling dog, a dying boy and a bereaved father takes on emotional resonance rich in childlike poignance.

The Gibbons lives are by no means completely rendered here, but that hardly matters. What we do get in the 60-minute production is a chance to enter an alternate universe of intricate storytelling.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

The Twins Would Like to Say  runs through April 25 in the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted.  Tickets are $20, $12 students and pay-what-you-can Wednesdays. A three-play pass to the Garage Rep series also including XIII Pocket’s Adore (our review ★★½) and Pavement Group’s punkplay (our review ★★★) is $45. For a performance schedule and ticket information, click here or go to http://www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

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