and Carolyn Benjamin
At The Neo-Futurarium, Chicago
Ambitious Plays Wades in the Water
I’ve made a commitment to writing this review. I eagerly anticipated seeing Pseudo-Chum. The play presents itself as something I am so very intrigued by. Post-modern, fourth-wall destroying, multi-story productions that are self-referential and, perhaps, boundless. I made a commitment to see this play. As I made notes to myself about Sharks, about culling, about chum, I eventually had to ask myself, “Am I a shark? Am I Chum?” After seeing Pseudo-Chum, I am here to report that I am both, but the play certainly left me feeling more like chum than anything else.
Let me step back a moment. Follow me back in time. Pseudo-Chum is a play written and directed by Sean & Carolyn Benjamin. Presented by the Neo-Futurists, the play reveals to us three aspects of Chum, the play within the play Pseudo-Chum. Chum is about a family that makes a trip to the coast of Australia to cull sharks. Beginning with the secret death of the patriarch of the family, lies and betrayal set in early, as the family begins to metaphorically and literally attempt to ruin one another.
Jumping back and forth through time, we simultaneously experience the performance of the play Chum, an obvious, heavy-handed play written by a notorious alcoholic, as well as two other aspects of the play. Juxtaposed with the performance is an Interview with the playwright, which begins with a question about the playwright’s suicidal tendencies and only increases in hostility from there. Finally, there is the rehearsal of the play, Chum, which is complicated by the playwrights undeserved fame. This fame brings a special spotlight on the troupe who are performing Chum, who are presented not only with the possibility of performing the play at a later date in Australia, but an opportunity to be in the film version starring Johnny Depp!
Let’s step forward in time, but back away from the performance. Can you follow me? The play deals heavily with the effect celebrity has on art. In a world dominated by social media, encouraged and reinforced by a 24/7 news cycle, that runs on repeat and requires non-stop consumption through the internet and other media outlets, how can artists stay out of this vicious cycle to be seen? How do you fight the impulse to be known, respected, and heard? Can one be successful without fame and attention? Is there such a thing as pure art in our age?
So many of these questions are raised from the onset of Pseudo-Chum, and the questions are reworded, presented in new forms, and asked numerous times. As Pseudo-Chum takes us back and forth through rehearsal, performance, and interview, the audience has to ask themselves if one can really separate the world outside of a play from any play performed in our times. The audience is forced to ask themselves what role they play in the performance.
Sean & Carolyn Benjamin pace this play fantastically. The play never loses speed, and uses musical cues to fabulous effect. Alison Connelly, as the Director of the play within the play, is fantastic as an emotionally unstable control freak, really raising the bar on the visceral quality of the performance. After wall, her character constantly reminds us that she has “made a commitment to this project.” The minimal stage design by Evelina Robey gives the audience just enough information while, simultaneously, harking back to Brechtian principles that the play often returns to.
However, I do feel with the questions this play raises, it begins to shoot itself in the foot. As the three overlapping stories begin to intersect and interact with one another, the bar is raised on how the rehearsal affects the play, affects the interview, affects the playwright, affects the audience. The questions begin and end here. Despite the closer inspection the play takes in its final act, it doesn’t posit any more questions, nor any answers. This is a concern that I have with many a Brecht-inspired works, from plays to cinema, the multi-tiered narratives with a self-aware presentation often don’t lead to daring answers. The audience is left to simmer on the question the play raises and nothing more. Sure, celebrity effects art, but what are we to make of it?
I really wanted to enjoy the outcome of Pseudo-Chum, and the play has many promising things going for it. But, despite interesting structural decisions the playwrights make, the material doesn’t rise above the form of the plays presentation. Pseudo-Chum wades in the water, just off the edge of the boat Catharsis. What are we to do with this? Can you follow? I must. I’ve made a commitment to this project.
Matthew J. Wrobel
Date Reviewed: October 23, 2014
For more info, check out the Pseudo-Chum page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, Ave., Chicago, IL, Call 773-275-5255, www.neofuturists.org, Tickets $20, $10 for students/seniors with ID, pay-what-you-can Thursday performances, running time is 85 minutes without an intermission, performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 through November 29, 2014.