With the Neo-Futurists, a lot can happen in an hour
By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, December 13, 2009
By design, a night with the Neo-Futurists theater company is a roll of the dice. Its long-running Chicago hit "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" is a pell-mell party game: 30 plays in 60 minutes, running order determined by the whimsy of each night's shouting crowd.
To keep it extra-unpredictable, a single die is tossed onstage at the end of every performance to determine how many "plays" will be retired that evening and replaced by something fresh the next day. Thus is "Baby" ever born anew.
Which brings us to the semi-gross "Art. I Birth You" skit the Neos did midway through Wednesday's performance at Woolly Mammoth, where the popular troupe is ensconced through the holidays. The cast of five, scattered throughout the audience, straddled a few hapless patrons like mothers in heavy labor and bellowed inane declarations about how to receive their beautiful about-to-be creations.
In yer face, anyone? For some in the audience, this was a prank to be endured; for others, it was a scream. Welcome back to the Neo-Future.
At its best, "Too Much Light" -- a staple for two decades now in Chicago, and a frequent guest of late at Woolly -- leaves you breathless with the troupe's audacity and wit. The cast members are intuitively topical, so they bring up current events fluently, puckishly and irreverently. "Illegal Abortion Play," a wordless bit that was slightly sick but far from stupid, was a major groan-getter Wednesday night. (This stuff ain't for kids, by the way, nor is it for humorless scolds.)
Gun control, workplace efficiency and big-time party-crashing all got glossed, nearly always with a clever twist, but the Neos do things just for fun, too. "Bad Clowns, Really Bad Clowns" lived up to its title, and for something completely different Mary Fons took two minutes to create a large painting while we all listened to "Crush."
A lot of the material lives in the overlap between flip and hip, like "The Antchrist," which, of course, is about a resurrected ant. (Silly, yes, but with a sweetly delivered punch line about the nature of belief.) The Neos, like the dadaists they clearly adore, are not above wordy rants, and surrealist sidebars are like second homes for the cast members. They thrive on audience engagement -- you've been warned -- and while they like broad jokes, they also go in for humor so esoteric that you may be the only one who laughs. ("Antchrist," me . . . yeah.)
The show has no filter in some ways -- the actors use their own names, and informality prevails -- yet it's elegantly crafted in others, with quick-cued sound and lighting sometimes creating truly poignant moods. Last time I saw the Neos, they didn't get through 30 plays (60 minutes is the strict limit), but the show somehow had more spunk; Wednesday night's peaks-and-valleys affair finished with minutes to spare. It's completely hit-or-miss, but these calculating rowdies might argue that so is life. As the Neos say, if you've seen the show once, you've seen it once.
Created by Greg Allen. Written, directed and performed by the Neo-Futurists. With Eliza Burmester, Bilal Dardai, Chloe Johnston and Jay Torrence. One hour.