STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Accidentally, “Deja Variations” followed “The Art of Acting” at the dress rehearsal Tuesday night for “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.” They were the funniest of about 30 playlets to run within a 60-minute time frame. The odd Neo-Futurist production with its even more bizarre title counts on random selection, so two connected scenes seemed a gift.
Directed by Ginny Davis, every performance of “Too Much Light” promises to be a bit different. That’s part of an elaborate premise devised by Chicagoan Greg Allen, who conceived and directed the first production of the Neo-Futurists on Dec. 2, 1988. It’s Chicago’s longest-running show. In 2004, another Neo-Futurist troupe made landfall in New York City. So this edgy, new-wave theater has made its way to Durango, too.
Allen’s concept has a statement of purpose and rules for performers – and audience – a bit like the 1909 Futurist Manifesto that inspired Allen.
Brevity, compression, speed, chance and change underscore the tone and tempo of every performance. Everything is scripted with a little wiggle room for limited improvisation and topical references.
“Still,” Davis said before the rehearsal, “this is the hardest piece I’ve ever worked on. The contractual obligations are very strict. It’s a different format than any of us are used to. The actors and the audience have a lot of input.”
Audience members choose the order of performance and may choose to sit on stage. A clothesline holding large sheets of paper with numbers spans the stage. As each vignette is performed, a cast member removes the number and a shout out determines the next.
It seems arbitrary, but that’s the point – random selection. Occasionally, audience members are asked to help, for example, holding a blanket or sitting on a chair and ringing a bell to stop the action of a story.
At dress rehearsal, FLC student Taylor Neve agreed to the latter. The scene played like a child’s game with the actors collapsing every time Neve rang the bell.
The real miracle is the cast. Kenneth Breece, Brianna DeVore, Elizabeth Dunn, Julie Faulkner, K.J. Kahoke, Tiffany Silva, Jordan Trujillo and Carl D. Smith spontaneously respond to the random scene sequence. At the rehearsal, there were no stumbles or hesitation. Performance ready.
The actors appear as themselves, sans makeup and wearing what they wore to the theater. “We are who we are,” says the manifesto. “My name is my name and my age is my age.”
Some bits feel like lectures, some are soliloquies, a few are conversations, many incorporate dance and several involve the entire ensemble. The shortest scene is simply a spotlight – no actor, no prop.
No matter how hard the Neo-Futurists proclaim this as new, an evening of short sketches reminds one of another form: vaudeville. Granted, that turn-of-the century form consisted of songs, comic sketches and dance. It all had an order, and cue cards announced each piece. That’s not unlike calling out the scene number from the Neo-Futurist menu – printed and in your hands, by the way. Layer on top the Realist tradition in theater, begun by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov and dominating the 20th century stage, then a final frosting where neo-futurism attempts to make illusion and the fourth wall disappear entirely.
Several contemporary themes run through the work – relationships, youthful insecurities, identity politics, war and violence. At FLC, there is a sense of youth and ownership on the material.
The title was randomly chosen by founder Allen. Apparently, he heard an autistic child repeat the words as he smashed light bulbs. The website says its very oddity appealed to Allen, so he named the play “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.”