Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind
Written, Directed, Produced and Performed by the Neo-Futurists: Sharon Greene, Jacquelyn Landgraf, John Pierson, Caitlin Stainken and Jay Torrence
Created by Greg Allen
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
If you have a taste for the tawdry, the kinky, the sweet and the sublime… this show’s for you. Given its premise – 30 plays in 60 minutes, with new plays added and old ones dropped for each performance – you’d be tempted to want to say that the only constancy in the new Too Much Light is change. You would, however, be wrong. The cast is new, but the rules have stayed the same. In this newest installment of Chicago’s long-running late-night sensation, the numbers from 1 to 30, each representing a play, still hang from a clothesline across a bare stage, hand-drawn in deceptively regulation black but sporting subtly varied fonts, designs and sizes. The piped-in music is equally eclectic, segueing from Hasidic to classical and through rock, show tunes, easy listening and jazz. The clock in the corner still counts down the minutes, and the promise of pizza for a sold-out house still hangs in the air (and is kept at show’s end).
The house is still a seemingly indispensable part of the show: at the call of the word “Curtain!” the audience shouts out the number of the next playlet they want to see and the actors obey. In theory, this sounds like fun, and it’s a great way to engage the crowd. But, as reality is the watchword here – the show’s premise being that there’s no fourth wall, and that everything the actors will show us is based on something that happened to them in real life – with 265 people screaming out numbers, it’s hard not to think that whatever number the Neos want to pick, they will pick. And when you think about it, at a Neo-Futurists show, the order is the least of the concerns: when the hour is over, your brain will be hemorrhaging from absorbing 30 head shots, and you will remember the ones that hit home, no matter where they happened to fall. Indeed, we’re warned at the beginning by John Pierson that different people’s reactions to the same show may be wildly divergent. But, not to worry: “That’s ART!”
The players are uniformly (and I use that word advisedly!) excellent, although the same cannot be said for the skits. While each of the five actors is capable of, and some arguably gifted in, everything from low comedy to high drama, the playlets are experimental in nature, and do not always hit their mark. When they do, you find yourself deep in quiet thought… for about a tenth of a second. Then the next one grabs hold of your mind, heart, or… other part.
The skits go from the sacred to the profane – sometimes in the same skit. Those who are sensitive about humor that mocks or questions religious belief are hereby forewarned about “An Open Memo to the God of the Mormon and Roman Catholic Church,” which manages to be scathingly blasphemous, scatological and heretical without blinking an eye. (If it remains in the show, that is. As the skits are new each night, at least to a degree, it may not.)
Another, perhaps gentler take on religion (as I couldn’t understand the words, I wouldn’t swear to it) was “The Chanukah Song,” played by the crew in a washboard, recorder (lime green!), percussion and kazoo quartet with a rhythmic, finger-drummingly, foot-stompingly invigorating pace.
In “The Diaper Thing,” Greene told of her stock-trader boyfriend who was in the habit of wearing a diaper into which he relieved himself (shades of Studio’s Jerry Springer?), but was “otherwise normal.” She loved him more, she told us, creating a skirt by rolling a stream of paper around her hips, because it made him “strange and vulnerable.”
Jay Torrence delivered one of the most popular skits of the night, “Literal Music Video #048,” which caused screams of laughter among the cognoscenti, but left those in the audience not familiar with the musical group Enigma, amused. Jay’s smooth physical riffs on the theme went from the surprised to the seductive – but puzzled. (Suffice it to say that the title of the song is “Turn Around.”) The song and Torrence popped up throughout the show, like Harpo in a Marx brothers routine.
Another skit aimed at those in the know was “Gaydar,” in which Torrence sprinted across the stage, followed by a loud “BEEP!” The laughter of recognition was so ebullient, so genuine, it made those who didn’t quite get the joke join in the merriment anyway.
In “Boys Gone Wild,” Pierson got to bare his inner beast and outer breast, in a purported demonstration of the inequities imposed on women who want and need to nurse their babies in public, but are discouraged from doing so by prudish people. What if men did it? Ah, but they can’t. So, lifting his shirt enticingly, he began enjoying his own nipples — leaving you either utterly turned off, curiously turned on, or wishing for a remote control. Regardless of where along the continuum you found yourself, the Travolta-like looks and poses he assumed as he flexed his muscles and gazed down at the audience with bedroom eyes were worth the price of admission.)
In “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” Greene emerged in a gargantuan pair of fluorescent plastic glasses to pedantically enumerate the reasons why, bringing about the very laughter whose existence she was denying. Then Caitlin Stanken joined her to let off steam about women who, in fear of finding germs on public restroom toilet seats, do not sit on them, with the inevitable result: “These crouching ladies,” scolded Caitlin in her best Palin mode, “walk away without wiping the seat, thereby causing the very thing they fear!” (Ladies, take note; you know who you are.)
The skit with the longest title had the shortest and simplest premise (and action): “Having Missed Its Cue, The Orange Entered Hurriedly, but Once on Stage It Found That It Had Forgotten Its Lines Entirely and Remained Paralyzed Before The Audience for What Seemed Like an Eternity.” And while you’d think the only thing duller would be watching paint dry, this skit was surprisingly hilarious, even touching.
Which, when it comes down to it, may say a lot about the entire show: what you take away is largely a measure of what you put in. If just one Neo-Futurist skit shines a light on one of your foibles, fears or fantasies, and opens your eyes to something you didn’t know was there – or didn’t want to see – this may turn out to be one of the best, and certainly one of the most unconventional, hours in the theatre you’ll spend this season.
Note: Recommended for ages 16 and above.
Running Time: 1:10, no intermission
When: Dec 15, 2008 – Jan 4, 2009 . Dec 18-21: Thurs & Fri at 8 pm, Sat at 7 & 9 pm, Sun at 2 pm. Dec 26-31: Thurs & Fri at 7 & 9 pm, Sat at 2 & 7 pm, New Year’s Eve at 10:30 pm. Jan 1 – 4: Thurs & Fri at 8 pm, Sat at 7 & 9 pm, Sun at 2 pm.
Where: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co., 641 D Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004
Tickets: $30. $20 for standing room. Call 202-393-3939 or order online.