Friday, February 24, 2012

HE WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY? - 'He Who' by Theatre Zarko (Steppenwolf Garage Rep)

(Photo by Ryan Borque)

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "Garage" space isn't just some sort of cutesy understatement. It's a garage. The theatre's confusing size and awkwardness keep you perpetually curious as to where the John Deere tractor and the mildewed box of Tiny Tim LPs are hidden. So, one of the great challenges for the three emerging storefront companies that infest Steppenwolf's Merle Reskin Garage every spring during their Garage Rep is tackling the unexpected expansiveness of that extremely specific black box. With less-than-ideal sight lines and much more width than necessary, a decent performance here can be an arduous task - a task that some are unable to adequately fulfill.

In He Who, which opened on Saturday at Steppenwolf, Theatre Zarko has dug ever deeper into that plucky garage metaphor, packing the space with rickety old set pieces and freakish props scattered every which way. But here, such excessiveness becomes a textbook case of 'throw everything at the wall and see what sticks', with little, if anything adhering to the proverbial wall. The plot, characters, and design are all senselessly obscure, and even when observed through the guise of pretentious performance art, they still appear shallow and self indulgent. The play shows off skillful and impressive puppeteering, but fails as a piece of compelling drama by unceasingly baffling its audience with superfluous avant garde claptrap.

The tale of three emotionally enslaved women caring for a volatile, immature head-being, is undecidedly comic and dramatic. Nancy Andria, Karen Hoyer, and Laura Montenegro play these women with an enduring enthusiasm through their distress, but there is a consistently forced quality behind it. What kept popping into my mind, try though I might to suppress it, was TLC's Sister Wives. Three sister-wives kept in line by a big and powerful, yet really meager and weak, overseer. The comparison is unavoidable to anyone who has ever forgotten that it's Saturday. But in He Who that powerful overseer is a baby, and those sister-wives are mothers, so any reach at dramatic tension is left fruitless by the inherent and obvious likability of babies - whether ugly and gross or Gerber.

The accompanying music, composed by Jude Mathews, begins the performance and quietly creeps behind the action throughout the play. The tiny-but-full band sounds like what I imagine a gypsy funeral march to be - a combination of Eastern European melancholy and the opening scene of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Whether that unique creation fits in with the hodgepodge of dissident elements on display, I'm not sure, but the effect is a cool mournful wailing.

After the band completes its solo show, a plethora of thin, clumsy plots are introduced and discarded with careless ambivalence: the mothers putting the baby together like a Mr. Potato Head, only adding a single arm and an ear; a father who is an (chuckle, chuckle) arms dealer; a mystifying figurine sex display; a urination gag taken to the annoying extreme; and an unsatisfying ending featuring a fourth mother (Colleen Werle) that is nowhere near as emotionally profound as it regards itself. And around all that chaos is a nosy Inquistor character that, while given fun whiny roboticism by Ellen O'Keefe, would even allude Fellini.

The baby-being puppet, designed by writer and director Montenegro and deftly manipulated by Noah Silver-Mathews and Katie Jones, comes alive with nuanced gestures, blinks, and brilliantly articulated lips. The script, also written by Montengro, beautifully facilitates this masterfully manipulated puppet, which, I might add, is much more of a fully realized character than any other theatrical puppet I've seen. But while evil-baby-puppet-head becomes a fleshed out, honest character, attracting oodles of audience sympathy and laughter, the three women fail to find the danger and urgency in their enslavement. Attempts at escapes seem as chores, and emotions are forced.

There are some lovely images in He Who, but they exist ephemerally, never connecting to the whole. The play certainly has an noticeable undercurrent of promise, but as it stands, the structure and content are dominated by incessant, domineering weirdness.
Don't get me wrong - "weird" and "wonderful" are synonymous terms in my book. But so too are "alienating" and "selfish."-Johnny Oleksinski

'He Who' plays as part of the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage Rep though April 8.