Chicago playwright Mickle Maher may be many things – provocateur, innovator, absurdist – but, first and foremost, he is a wordsmith. He plays with words, runs with them, turns them upside down and inside out, blasts them awake, and then sets them right. He embellishes them, paints with them, deconstructs them, then constructs odd little moments out of tense and agreement. He gives them movement and flow. He gives words flight. His inventive riffs get our attention.
Song About Himself (2015), soaring aerodynamically via Catastrophic Theatre, is his latest fantasia produced from the theater company that performs him as if having an affair with him. They adore him, and want us, too, to fall in love. They succeed.
It's an odd quirky play, no doubt about that, not for everyone; but if you let yourself be drawn into it, let yourself be seduced by the rhythms, by the inventive performances, by the oddness of it all, by the rush of words, you'll fall right into its arms.
Maher is all about connection; it's his grand theme. His other works delve into this (The Stangerer, The Hunchback Variations, There is a Happiness That Morning Is, Spirits to Enforce, less successfully in The Pine), but Song is most raw and out-there. And what better place to explore our yearning for connectivity than in the world of cyberspace, where Twitter-like communication and face-less anonymous posts are all we have, all we are.
We're in some bleak dystopian time – obviously not too far off – in a virtual place called YouSpake, where members come to “back and forth” in “lengthy posts” with each other. That's what Carol (Tamarie Cooper) desperately longs for, aches for. She's received a flier in the mail to join the group, after following its instructions to learn jazz on the clarinet. (Maher doesn't usually make such bald false steps, but this conceit of jazz-as-music-of-the-soul isn't followed through very well, if at all, yet Carol dutifully carries her instrument like Benny Goodman anxious to scat. Pre-show, as the audience enters, we hear a clarinet's practice squawks and squeaks.)
Carol is also introduced as only Maher could envision: her dialogue includes stage directions, as if her feelings are emoticons and equally as important as other words. "I (coughs nervously) (mumbles) (coughs) I'm here! I speak...and see my words there clear and (mumbles briefly) and that is, well, and (trails off) and that is (mumbles) and that is (trails off)..."
It's a weird gambit of the author but pays off handsomely later. We have become our own smiley faces, our little sad faces, our “ shrugging eyebrows suggesting sardonic resignation.” Emojis have become our voice. They are us.
Carol does not find solace or refuge in YouSpake, for she's the only member. What she finds instead is the obsequious group moderator, the Host/Hostess (Jovan Jackson). Like an asexual Siri or Hal from 2001 on a good day, the Host leads her in, tempts her to post, keeps her engaged. Non-committal and a bit creepy, he urges her on. Jackson is as lean as an exclamation mark and as wily cursive as an ampersand.
Carol's life is in shambles, her world bleak and loveless. All she lives for is her TV program that consists of a CD playing a long-dead and forgotten poet. That, of course, would be Walt Whitman, whose “Song of Myself” is what Maher constructs this jazzy riff on, around, and about.
As we get our bearings, the play meanders during this intro but finds its focus, and its heart, when Tod (a rumpled Noel Bowers) logs into the chat room. The Host is not pleased with this intruder and attempts to delete him. “He slides off,” in YouSpake jargon. Tod is Carol's lifeline and she demands he be let back in. She needs another person to talk to.
Love lost, then found, then probably lost again; connections garbled then clear in hopes of discovering “someone like yourself and unlike yourself” – all is swirled and tossed out by Maher in ornate voice that rings with dispassion, then violent passion; then lyric then mundane. It's a journey that echoes with Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, Isaac Asimov, and Mark Zuckerberg.
There is no set, only pinpoint lighting by Dustin Tannahill, that mirrors a computer screen booted on or off; utilitarian costumes by Macy Lynn; and Chris Bakos' ominous electric thrumm underneath; all crafted and shaped under Jason Nodler's crisp, wise direction.
If you only know Cooper from her annual summer musical vaudevilles, you will be astounded by the depth, verisimilitude, and searing ache that she brings to Carol. She embodies Whitman's transcendental “I.” Midway, Maher gives her a disquieting monologue, a “lengthy post” detailing her sad life, that's like an operatic aria. Cooper sings it like Callas. Bowers, whose image as a debauched, diaper-wearing Cupid from a former Cooper show is indelibly imprinted on my brain, has never been used to greater advantage as he is here as sad-sack mailman Tod. In shapeless hoodie with watch cap, whether he's an avatar of the Host or some lumpy virtual reality, he will break your heart with his yearning, wanting, awkward Everyman. Jackson couldn't be more splendidly sweet and sour as our Host from cyber-hell. Although only a nameless computer program, he's trapped within and jealously guards his realm, though, he, too, longs for human interaction
Maher's world of missed connections is not so far into the future, nor so bleak. His characters may (sigh) and (cough) and (slide off) and (pause), but they do so in words thick and pungent that assure them prickly life outside the dark wasteland we call social media. Is there an emoticon for Castastrophic's production? (hands clapping wildly!)
Song About Himself continues through December 3 at Catastrophic Theatre at MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Pay-What-You-Can.