Theater

"Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes)" at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre

Sharon Greene and Caitlin Stainken in the Neo-Futurists' hilarious playlet anthology that attempts to speed through 30 plays in 60 minutes.
Sharon Greene and Caitlin Stainken in the Neo-Futurists' hilarious playlet anthology that attempts to speed through 30 plays in 60 minutes. (By Scott Little -- Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 18, 2008

If a YouTube-addicted Marcel Duchamp ran the collected works of Monty Python through a Cuisinart, he might produce an entertainment as agreeably dizzying as "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes)."

This ever-shifting, lickety-split, absurdist playlet anthology -- the trademark of the Chicago troupe the Neo-Futurists, now running at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company -- has visited Woolly twice before. And to judge by Monday's opening performance, the oddball coinage is as hysterically funny, ingeniously unsettling and philosophically giddy as ever.

Balanced on the fulcrum between avant-garde theater and stand-up comedy, and pulsing with energy worthy of an extreme martial-arts competition, "Too Much Light" has a delectably nutty Mad Hatter feel to it -- but the looniness is governed by strict rules.

The writer-performers -- in this case, the winning Sharon Greene, Jacquelyn Landgraf, John Pierson, Caitlin Stainken and Jay Torrence (a largely different cast takes over Dec. 26) -- have prepared 30 sketches whose tones range from the wacky to the dreamlike (the surrealists are one of the troupe's influences) to the political to the Pirandellian.

Audience members shout out requests for various skits, referring to a handout that lists the pieces by title and number. (Samples of the delectably enigmatic titles include "You Only Need One Reason NOT to Casually Date God"; "Lesbians: Subtle but Not Subtle Enough"; and "It Takes More Than Two Months to Gestate a Guinea Pig, I Looked It Up"). In the order the audience demands, the cast barrels through the repertoire, aiming to complete the lot before a timer counts down the hour.

The lineup shifts daily (a die is cast onstage to determine how many pieces will be replaced with new ones), so theatergoers must expect the unexpected. Highlights from Monday night's romp included "Barista Tales" (a deadpan, melodramatically lighted chronicle, in hardboiled-detective-novel prose, recounting a meeting over semi-decaf-soy-latte-type beverages); "Poor Taste Striptease" (a pole dance -- complete with windowpane prop -- to the accompaniment of Eric Clapton's personal-tragedy ballad "Tears in Heaven"); and "Mind Like a Goldfish in a Steel Trap" (let's just say snapping rubber bands were involved).

Many playlets aimed to push past the audience's comfort zone: "Hot Lesbian Semi-Historical Love Vignettes Starring Barbie and Barbie" tossed around names like Gertrude Stein and featured obscene contortions by the eponymous Mattel dolls. Politics, too, are fair game: In "An Open Memo to the God of the Mormon and Roman Catholic Church" -- perhaps inspired by California's Proposition 8 -- Pierson and Stainken smeared wedding-cake frosting on each other while Torrence ranted hyperbolically in support of gay marriage.

Still, the most satisfying turns were perhaps the purely goofy "Literal Music Video #048" and "Literal Music Video #379," starring Torrence, displaying a hilarious roster of expressions. In one of these solos, he rotated solemnly to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" (whose lyrics, as fans of '80s pop songs know, repeatedly intone "Turn around . . . "). In the other, set to Ace of Base's "Don't Turn Around" . . . well, you get the picture.

The evening's elated momentum was not hampered by the breakdown of the 60-minute timer. Whoever coined the expression "More haste, less speed" obviously had never met the Neo-Futurists.

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes), created by Greg Allen; written, directed and performed by the Neo-Futurists. About 75 minutes. Through Jan. 4 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit http://www.woollymammoth.net.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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