The Play’s the Thing

going meta at the mca: teatro de ciertos habitantes with maverick ensemble, el gallo: opera for actors @ museum of contemporary art chicago, 30 april 2011 & curious theatre branch, still in play: a performance of getting ready @ museum of contemporary art chicago, 17 september 2011.

The MCA performance series seems to require that all its plays be about the making of plays. Going meta is the thing. So let us go meta on going meta for a moment.

Often, these self-reverential explorations are a bit too twisted around themselves, gazing at their theatrical navels. But not so with the Curious Theatre Branch and Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes/MAVerick Ensemble. These two troupes created new versions of the age-old backstage musical. But this was 42nd Street if Antonin Artaud had been the director and instead of Pretty Lady, the cast was rehearsing for some lost Living Theater production. But that’s not quite right. These productions were not theaters of cruelty. In fact, they were quite playful and teasing as they probed the creative process more than its products. What was most intriguing was the way in which there was no fourth wall to break through in these productions. Since they focused on the making of a play rather than the play itself, one was already not watching the stage even though one was watching the stage—there were no more boundaries, theoretically at least, between backstage, on stage, and the house.

Curious Theatre Branch. Photograph: Kristin Basta.

Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes made this quite literal by bringing the audience into seats on stage behind a curtain for the first half of their production, then sending them back around to the front of the regular seats for the second half. And as the title of the production by Curious Theatre Branch suggested, the troupe made the getting ready—the warm-up exercises, rehearsals, arguments, experiments, discussions—the content of their play itself. But as much as they strived to demystify the making of a play, the two companies also sought to ramp up the mystery. Curious Theatre Branch did this by literally putting a curved ramp at the edge of the stage, a kind of hurdle that the actors had to leap over in order to join the production. And as the actors broke into smaller scenes and interactions, they would periodically shift into a weird action, more symbolic than realistic: they would assemble into one circling line of marchers that curled into itself at center stage. They became a tightening helix out of which many acting bodies became one creature, an ensemble, a being. Strange and astonishing…Busby Berkeley meets Jean-Paul Sartre. Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes adopted similar strategies. The actors eventually stripped down to almost no clothes, as if shedding skins, before they put on their costumes for the play production within their play production.  And more bizarrely and wonderfully, they staged their backstage comedy in an entirely made-up language, so that even as one saw the actors up close—as actors rather than characters, or better said as undergoing a transformation from actor to character—one was also distanced from them by gibberish.

In both cases, what the play’s were after was that moment of transformation when the impossibly disparate, unlikely ingredients of a theatrical production congealed into something coherent. Could, they asked, a theater company portray the moment before the moment when the play becomes the thing?

Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes/MAVerick Ensemble. Photograph: Lorena Minor.


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