Demanding Much from the Audience

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rbp.gifI’m continuously on my soapbox on this blog about audiences needing to be exposed to challenging theatrical material.  I hate to break it to the gazillion people who made Wicked such a phenomenon in the city, but there’s more to the stage than flying witches and saccharine pseudo-pop musical theater songs.  I feel very strongly that people should think and feel MORE when they come to the theater to truly get immersed in the power of live performance; if they want mindless escapism, than they can stay home, break open a PBR, scratch some belly, and watch COPS or Real Housewives of Orange County.   Fortunately, Chicago is a city with a thriving, risk-taking, multi-faceted theatrical community, so there’s no shortage of adventurous productions to sample.  And one of the most adventurous, and most notable and worthwhile that I have seen in years, is Right Brain Project‘s startling environmental production of Fernando Arrabal’s rarely produced masterpiece, And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, currently being staged in a suffocatingly tiny, raw, black box performance space on the fourth floor of a warehouse building by the train tracks at Ravenswood and Irving Park.  For me, this production is what makes the Chicago storefront scene explosive:  staged for hardly any money, not expecting to make any (the play is free with suggested donations), comprised of innovative, can-do directorial fervor, bravely naked (both literally and emotionally) acting, and yes, challenging, material that will provoke a variety of reactions from the audience, from repulsion, attraction, discomfort, admiration, inspiration.

Fernando Arrabal is a much-acclaimed playwright, film director, novelist, and artist, born in Spain but who is now a French citizen.  Together with fellow artistic provocateurs Alexander Jodorowsky and Roland Topor, he founded the Mouvement Panique (Panic Movement) in the mid-1960s which focused on theater that is chockfull of “chaotic performance art and surreal imagery”, as a counter-response to the prevailing “bourgeois” theatrical forms of the period.  Arrabal’s plays are also highly political, especially influenced and refracted by his experience with and views against the Franco regime.  And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, a highlight of Mouvement Panique, is specifically about how political prisoners were treated and tortured in Spain during Franco’s dictatorship, but it is written with such vehement emotion that it can be applicable to any time period and any geographic location where human rights violations occur and authoritarian governments prevail.  What makes it more than a political diatribe (and it is a very heavy-handed diatribe at that, to be honest) though is Arrabal’s masterful interweaving of the prisoners’ dreams, which become more surreal, nightmarish, and grotesque as the night wears on, dreams that are also provocative attacks against Spanish socio-cultural institutions such as the Catholic Church.   On paper, the play is over the top, full of sacrilegious images, scatological ones, nudity and sex, torture and violence (a priest getting blinded and then being force-fed his balls, anyone?), demanding so much from its audience, so much so that the question becomes “how the heck do you stage this effectively?”.

Well, I think the brave and smart young director Nathan Robbel has found the right ways to draw, rivet, and provoke his audience without pushing them out screaming down four flights of stairs and onto the train tracks.  He creates a highly-atmospheric staging, incorporating heavy curtains, incense, sound effects, candlelight, truly innovative flashlight-driven lighting design, a minimum of props which highlight the rawness of the performance space, which consequently evoke the rawness and squalor of prison cells.  He draws committed, no-holds-barred performances from a strong, young cast who not only has to convey the emotional terror, suffering, and sense of injustice of the prisoners, but also has to make the sometimes baffling, sometimes stomach-churning dreams come to vivid life (by squealing like farm animals, or appearing as a pissy, in all senses of the word, religious apparition, or getting horsewhipped, or simulating oral sex with a gigantic prosthetic, among others).  He paces the show well, jarring us from our complacency as we watch the surreal dreams acted out by swiftly cutting to another scene of realistic torture or cruelty, and stages scenes in all corners of the black box, playing with our expectations of visual focus and sightlines.  It is a play that demands a lot from the audience, both from Arrabal beating you on the head with the politics, but also with the interconnections of the imagery that you have to make, but Robbel makes it an enthralling night of theater.  As Christopher Piatt mentions in his mostly complimentary Timeout Chicago review, I too could have done without a cast member ushering me to my seat and draping herself over me for an uncomfortably long period of time, uhmmm, in near-darkness, before the show started (and yes, my dear blog readers, the discomfiting word there is “herself”), but the questionable artistic choices are outweighed by the truly engaging ones.  I’m now a new fan of the Right Brain Project (thanks to friend of From the Ledge Paul Rekk for tipping me off to them), and I really look forward to seeing some more of their work, and Robbel’s work in particular.  This is the kind of Chicago storefront production that I, as a theater-savvy, culturally-broadminded audience member, would like to champion and advocate for, not the numerous safe re-treads that some of this city’s avowed storefront theaters seemingly have settled themselves into (how many times do we need to see Neil La Bute or the dreadful Stop/Kiss or another iteration of Chekhov coming from supposedly cutting-edge, non-equity theaters?  Spare me!).    My dear blog readers, call or email them for your reservation to this play right now!

And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers is running until March 7 at the RBP Rorschach, 4th Floor, 4001 N. Ravenswood.  Although the performances are free, you are strongly encouraged to make reservations (I think the space can only accomodate 25-30 people at a time) by calling 773-750-2033 or emailing  Hurry!


One Response to “Demanding Much from the Audience”

  1. Paul Rekk Says:

    My pleasure, Francis. Glad you enjoyed it!

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