Monday, August 07, 2006

retromodernist redux

The number of counter-Aristotelian theater groups in Chicago has reached the threshhold where these groups can be considered as a movement. Three major theater groups, Red Moon Theater, the Neo-Futurists and 500 Clown Theater all trace their lineage through Chicago-school audience-partipatory improvisation back to European modernism. Modernism was, of course, a machine gun blast in the face of traditionalist 19th century aestheticism but it grew from a very specific context: it's historical purpose was to shock people out of the sloppy intellectual habits of centuries of traditionalist accretion by making people question the very nature of art, to open the way for a new aesthetics. The Chicago retromodernist triad continues this tradition by staging in-your-face presentations that violate traditional theatrical expectations, but each of the three have very different goals and achieve very different effects.

As a matter of intellectual history, after a period of wild experimentalism, the story of modernism continues and basically ends with Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, who are both its culmination and its refutation: Once Pound and Eliot were able to reestablish an aesthetics based on science and truth, a new canon had been established, and there was little reason left to keep blasting away.

While modernism briefly flared up in almost all cultural disciplines, from music to sculpture to painting, it continues to survive and flourish in theater, almost a century after its first appearance. Performance Art, as a pure form, is taught in universities, more as a discipline and a craft than a cutting-edge phenomenon. Theatrical groups using modernist techniques are often mislabeled "avant-garde", even though they are occupying territory that was subjugated many years before, and use an established grammar of predictable theatrical devices. The blandly corporate "Blue Man Group" is an example of the commodification and packaging of modernist theater techniques in a way that is reminiscent of John Berger's famous critique of late period Picasso (in other words, by Berger's taxonomy, late Picasso can be thought of as his "blue man" period).

Red Moon Theater is probably the most successful and least interesting of Chicago's retro-modernist troupes and it is fitting that the Union Bank of Switzerland's Private Wealth Division is one of their biggest supporters. Straight from the Brechtian twenties, Red Moon often features stylized capitalist archetypes -- potbellied greedheads mindlessly grabbing innocent young things while shoving sausages in their own faces. The first and obvious message of UBS's support for Red Moon Theater is that inheirited wealth is civilizing and genteel, while earned money is disgusting and vulgar. On a deeper level, the cultural-social destabilization of artificially supporting a refuted aesthetic-intellectual movement creates a context where younger people believe that issues that had been clearly settled in the thirties are still up for debate -- in other words, it is too soon to think about social transformation, and please allow our PWD to continue making obscene profits from the current absurd social conjuncture. In this way, the multi-channelled chaos of our time is profoundly conservative, and those who are paid to contribute to the noise can rightly be considered servants of the ruling elite.

But Chicago's retromodernist scene goes beyond a set of costumed dupes fronting for a cabal of international Swiss financiers. Chicago's Neo-Futurists have expanded a brief flash of a movement from 1920s Italian modernism into a sixteen year open-run in Rogers Park. The Neo-Futurists turn modernism into harmless fun and a light intellectual workout -- a safe first date for a moderately adventuresome couple, a trip down memory lane for anybody nostalgic for entre-deux-guerres culture. While the neo-futurists take real risks for low pay -- one of them permamently damaged his spine during an audience participation piece where he would fall and trust that at least one audience member would spontaneously rush onstage to catch him -- these risks do not serve a broader moral or aesthetic agenda. The short works are completely contextless, and the result of seeing a large number of chaotic pieces is a systematic derangement of the senses that ultimately gives one a renewed appreciation for the virtues of a traditionally well-crafted play and a craving for moral and aesthetic agendas. In short, the Italian twenties were followed by the Italian thirties, and if you spend enough time watching the Neo-Futurists, you might find yourself following the Pound-Eliot vector and thinking like Mussellini.

500 Clown is, far and away, my favorite of Chicago's retro-modernist groups (though Adrian Danzig, one of the founders of 500 Clown, was also heavily involved with both the neo-futurists and Red Moon Theater). 500 Clown presents improvised literary adaptations, with Red Moon's self-congratulatory and smug political correctness replaced by an invitation to audience self-examination and the neo-futurist's risk-filled chaos hung on the scaffolding of an architecturally sound piece of literature and serving a broader purpose. In 500 Clown's multi-layered adaptation of Frankenstein, the physical risks taken by the actors create sympathy for the people on stage, though ultimately the audience is turned into a mob that dehumanizes and murders a sentient being. People leave the theater in a good mood, but when they contemplate the evening, they regret their complicity in the destruction of the so-called "monster". In their adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the audience is presented with the same quandary as Scrooge. As they think about the show, they realize that they are were unwilling to part with anything of value in order to save the life of a fellow human being. Rather than offering a unified and closed aesthetic experience, 500 Clown uses the openness of modernist, participatory theater to pose moral questions without presupposed answers, and to welcome people into a self-aware and open community that is perpetually seeking self-improvement.

All that, and they are really good clowns, too. So if you want a guilt-free modernist experience that encourages moral growth without subtly turning you into a fascist or making you a stooge of the gnomes of Zurich, then make space on your calendar for the 500 Clown Christmas show this coming December.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

mussellini, yes. the great purveyor of shellfish, and literary fashist.

8:59 AM  

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