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Theater Review:

Clock Productions’ "THE BIG FUNK" at Chopin Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

In his modern allegorical tragicomedy, "The Big Funk," playwright John Patrick Shanley cuts through the crap of human delusions, strips society bare and holds up a mirror to the audience to reveal the inner carnage. His experimental play -- which merges Pirandellian hyper-awareness of theatrical conventions with neurotic contemporary relationship drama – aims to cover a lot of emotional ground.

To an extent, it succeeds at dissecting the myriad ways human beings are cruel to each other and answering the grinding question of our purpose in life. But "The Big Funk" also drowns in its own excruciating philosophical panic attacks – making for a provocative but disquieting and tedious theater experience.

Thankfully, Clock Productions succeeds at shaping the playwright’s analytical avant-garde overkill into a moving and earnest work of art. Director Robin Chaplik’s exacting attention to absurdist mood and off-kilter detail illuminates the play’s calls for rigorous self-examination and honesty more successfully than Shanley does in his verbose jumble of words and ideas. Where the playwright hammers home his grim view of the world through a stream of predictable -- even repetitious -- symbolism, Chaplik and her brilliant cast achieve a terrifying and ultimately optimistic urgency through unexpected subtlety and suggestion.

A play within a play within the subconscious mind, "The Big Funk" does not follow a linear plot. Instead audiences meet each character through a series of monologues, beginning with the self-described "villain" Jill, a misguided young woman who constantly find herself in dysfunctional romantic relationships. Then we are introduced to Fifi, the subservient wife of a disgruntled knife thrower, Omar, who in turn must confront his own protective and responsible instincts when he learns that Fifi is pregnant with twins.

Another low-key but pivotal character is unemployed actor Austin who has a staunch desire to make a difference in the world. The least defined character is Gregory, an insane, self-absorbed man whose main role is to rub Vaseline all over Jill – a metaphor perhaps for Jill’s habit of dirtying herself through low self-esteem and lack of discernment when it comes to men.

In one of the most difficult but cathartic scenes, Austin meets the grease-covered Jill at a bar and offers to give her a bath – an elaborate tour de force of redemptive stage magic as performed by Janell Cox’s quietly numb but impassioned Jill and Ryan Kitley’s gentle and burningly committed Austin (whose later fervent and tempered wake-up-call monologue in the buff turns out to be one of the play’s most non-sensationalistic moments).

Jennifer Fisk endows the seemingly mindless Fifi with a gracious perceptive aura; and Dave Hoke demonstrates his stunning range as Omar, who has no tolerance for small talk or prescribed niceties. Yet for all of Omar’s impatience with shallow or imperfect people, he finds himself suddenly incapable of hitting "the black dot" with knives that may or may not represent his idealized self-induced expectations. Grahame Rush, however, could provide the problematically written Gregory with more varied dimensions.

Scenic/lighting designer Lynne Koscielniak complements Chaplik’s masterful stage vision, particularly astonishing during the Act Two dinner scene featuring a massively long all-American table and blazing American flag. Skewed perspectives ensue as the guests cut through their steaks with Omar’s over-sized knives and are surrounded by other fun house-mirror images of dining implements and dishes.
This is an impeccably exaggerated scenic vision, beautifully contrasted with Koscielniak’s sensual and minimalist design for Austin’s bathroom during Jill’s exquisite bath sequence. Debbie Baer’s inventive costumes gracefully merge fantasy and reality.

Each scene, in fact, unfolds from contrived theatrics through the caverns of the human mind and toward a bloated naturalism. Audiences will no doubt leave Clock Productions’ staging feeling renewed and provoked – a remarkable feat, considering Shanley’s propensity for quirky over-exposition.•

Clock Productions’ staging of "The Big Funk" runs through November 4 at Chopin Theatre’s downstairs studio, 1543 W. Division. Tickets: $15. Call 312-409-6872.

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