An Unconventional, Multifaceted Story
The Neo-Futurists’ A Story Told in Seven Fights is wild, fractured, devastating, goofy, thought-provoking, disorienting, laugh-out-loud funny, and—at one or two points, for a fraction of a second—mortally terrifying. Part retelling of the violent origins of Dada and Surrealism, part revolt against artistic (and all other) conventions, and part meta-referential reflection on the performers’ lives at this very absurd instant in time, it is as much an attempt to change the world as to tell a tale.
As in the company’s flagship show The Infinite Wrench, throughout much of this Prime Time production (“the [Neo-Futurists’] non-late night and long form theatrical programming”) the performers are simply themselves, the people they always are, only on stage. The fourth wall is broken so often and with such gusto as to be reduced to a mere suggestion of a barrier. Unlike in the Wrench, however, members of the ensemble also portray characters, actual individuals from history like Jack Johnson and Mina Loy, Arthur Cravan and Tristan Tzara. The transitions between the historical and the immediate take the action, now seamlessly, now jarringly, from personal to universal, from lofty metaphor to literal fact.
Neo-Futurists Match Style to Tone
The choreography of the eponymous seven fights is remarkable, varying from slapstick to hyperrealistic to terpsichorean to entirely verbal. Tremendous symbolic power accompanies these stylistic shifts. For example, a confrontation between world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson and artistic provocateur Arthur Cravan is promised at the beginning of the play only to be delayed again and again. When the moment for the bout finally arrives, tensions have been ramped up sky high.
By contrast, a conversation between performers Jen Ellison and Jeff Trainor comes out of nowhere and vacillates between amicable on the one hand and spine-chillingly intense on the other as the two of them step back and forth over a literal line on the stage. One side is real life, in which Ellison and Trainor are, if not close friends, certainly on friendly terms. The other is world of the characters they play, in which they are dire artistic and philosophical enemies. What happens, then, when one actor is in the real-life zone and the other is in the representational? Is Jen actually going to murder Jeff on stage? (SPOILER ALERT: No.) (Or is she??)
Without giving too much away, towards the end of the show the story-behind-the-story begins to break down. Caught between the historical tales they are ostensibly trying to portray and their own doubts about the impact of this production—of art itself, even—the ensemble members start arguing and going off in their own directions. The advantages of this move are twofold. First, it reminds the audience that these are people just like them, despite whatever element of artifice there is in even in one of the Neo-Futurists’ plays. Second, it creates an opening for individual performers to take hold of the room, whether that be TJ Medel spinning a blistering assault on social injustice or Arti Ishak reexamining a painfully humanizing memory from a protest.
Tearing Down All Idols
Most plays, including those on the more meta end of the spectrum, do not come close to confronting their own creation and purpose this way. Most plays also do not have Stephanie Shum, bristling with rage, get up in an audience member’s face, call them out, and threaten them with physical violence, desisting only when bodily pulled back. With A Story Told in Seven Fights, however, creator Trevor Dawkins and the Neo-Futurists are not only showing what iconoclasts said and did a hundred years ago. They are showing what they say and do right now.
Fight Choreography Workshop Assistants
Gabriel Faith Howard
Michael Saubert Jr.
Matthew Parry Smith
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
5153 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640
Now through Saturday, April 7
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Fridays @ 7:30PM
Saturdays @ 7:30PM
All photos by Joe Mazza.
The author of this review is a personal friend of director Tony Santiago, sound designer Steve Labedz, and fight choreography workshop assistant Gabriel Faith Howard and has a keen professional interest in their work.
About the Author:
Harold Jaffe is a poet, playwright, amateur trapeze artist, freelance greeting card designer, and pie deliveryman. He earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College with a concentration in Poetry at Wellesley College. Since returning to Chicago, he has worked extensively with Cave Painting Theater Company, where his and Gwen Kelly-Masterton's play The Land of Never-Lack was produced in Spring of 2016, as well as with the Old World Theatre Company and the late great Oracle Productions. Some of his writing can be found at haroldjaffe.tumblr.com and in his chapbook Perpetual Emotion Machine, now available at Women & Children First.