June 3, 2005

Poet cummings marries—and divorces—art and reality in sole full-length play

For just about anyone, e.e. cummings can initially seem utterly indecipherable. While those who know better do not to judge his work on this superficial level, it is easy to see how, for some people, cummings represents the worst excess of poetry—a random string of words with no substance. Upon further inspection, however, a method appears to drive his madness: Cummings's work is characterized by bold verbal and syntactical experimentation, innovative political and social criticism, and a desire to reveal the deeper layers of society. While poetry allows an almost unparalleled level of freedom in writing, playwriting is different; every line in a play must have a purpose, and the audience must be kept constantly engaged. Cummings, it would seem, is the antithetical playwright. Accordingly, Him, his only full-length play, is so rarely performed because it is almost impossible to produce. Despite this, Him is one of the 20th century's most direct and self-sacrificing explorations of the nature of artistic thought, much more so than even cummings's poetry. For that matter, the Viaduct Theater Company made one of the bravest theatrical decision in recent memory when it chose to revive the play. And, to the best of their ability, they've nailed it.

Cummings demonstrated an anachronistic ability to explore the avant-garde. Featuring impossible characters, absurdist dialogue, and perplexing vaudevillian music, Him, like cummings's poetry, simply cannot be viewed at face value. There are many subtle themes that lend the play continuity. These include an exploration of the problems that plague relationships (partly autobiographical, the play features a frustrated wife of uncertain fidelity); criticisms of capitalism, fascism, and apathy; and the perils of reconciling art with real life. Refusing to give in to the standards of his time, cummings takes a more aesthetic and unique approach to these problems. He had a fascination with so-called "low art"—the flier for Him declares, "Damn everything but the circus!"—yet he was also a brilliant verbalist. Cummings couldn't have constructed a sentence that wasn't beautiful if he had tried. This peculiar disparity is utilized masterfully in Him, creating thematic and linguistic eclecticism. Scenes are, at various times, poetic, eccentric, raunchy, experimental, comical, and absurd; but they are never conventional. Yet for all this variety, the play is surprisingly well balanced. This is largely due to director Whitney Blakemore's extensive cuts. Although it is a shame to think of what is not said in a play like this, the result is a version of the play that is much more approachable than the one cummings provided or intended.

Productive cutting is just one of the many aspects of the Viaduct Theater Company's consistently brilliant production. All levels of the production work stunningly together—Robert Whitaker's inspired set design, Rich Peterson and Heather Graff's complexly layered lighting, Allison Siple's absurdly masterful costume design, and eerie Chicago vaudeville blues. If the production weren't top notch, not only would the play be impossible to watch, it would be impossible to perform.

While not as strong as the tech crew, the cast is still quite impressive. Each actor seems perfectly cast, delivering lines flawlessly, although they had not quite memorized their lines as of the preview performance. Each cast member looks appropriately spooky and circus-like, except Him and Me (David Shultz and Julia Siple, respectively), the characters apparently based on cummings and his second wife, who form the narrative core of the play. While plot is obviously not the focus of Him, Him and They do provide the play with much needed continuity, and, despite cummings's trademark whimsical dialogue, they manage to play the scenes as straightforwardly as possible. This controlled technique helps to underscore the contrast between the real world and the world of the play.

This contrast proves to be extremely essential to the larger motifs of the play. Like perhaps no one since Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, cummings extensively explored the boundary between the world of art and the world we, as humans, actually live in. Cummings had the advantage of working under the auspices of modernism, Freudian psychology, and the history of an enormous war that challenged people's view of society. One of the main points of the play is that despite the fact that the art world is more beautiful and appealing than ours, the two cannot coexist. Furthermore, those focused on the world of art will, by nature, have problems existing in the real world. Despite recognizing this problem, and warning against it, cummings can't help backsliding into such inadvisable behavior, and the paltry audience at the Viaduct's production (the actors outnumbered audience members in Friday's production) demonstrates the public's aversion to such indulgence. Yet, for anyone who wants an aesthetic, rich, and incomparable view of the nature of art and life, the Viaduct's production of Him is an absolute must, one of the highlights of this spring's Chicago theater season.