Watching the Artemis Exchange troupe in performance at this year’s Fringe is little like learning that some Nobel scientist can also write sonnets with Shakespeare or tap dance with Astaire or do close-up magic with Doug Henning. The group’s 2009 offering, Perfectly Wonderful Evening, won awards and serious applause for the way in which it made some heightened, highly unlikely (though historic) correspondence and dinner table conversation between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx seem casually relaxed and realistic.
Last month some email traffic and a telephone chat with the group’s mainspring, Chris Wesselman, made their new show sound scattered and silly, like it over-reached either for meaning or effect. Or both. Or maybe menace.
Well, that was then and this is now. Aberrant Reflections on the Barbarism of You and I is a perfectly wonderful evening of a totally different sort. It’s deeply philosophic and not nearly as scatterbrained as it would like you to think. It’s more deep-delving than over-reaching.
And it's seriously funny — with laughter rumbling up from inside provocative reinterpretations of familiar parables and fables. It’s the sort of laughter that might burn your throat a little as it forces you to think about things you don’t necessarily go to the theater to think about.
Three actors (Wesselman, Chris Dooley and Emma Robertson) are imprisoned on a stage in some limbo somewhere. Their lives are dominated and their activities are dictated by an invisible, all-powerful eminence who resides either just beyond the horizon or at the back of the theater. He controls their lives with sound effects, signs and the occasional call to a cell phone on stage. They're forced to endlessly re-enact roles they played throughout history — and alleged history — ripping in and out of 100 white T-shirts that identify their characters for the audience and for themselves.
They gambol about the Garden of Eden, where the snake has the best lines while Firstdude and Firstwoman turn into horny toads. They engage is a loopy disquisition on how Prince William of England is or might actually turn into Lucifer or Lucifer’s spawn, William 666.
A dozen more such scenes are made more humorous as they grow even less likely. Periodically the actors break into spontaneous song — well, sung dialogue. And they dance. But they can’t seem to escape. Ever. Only endure. And make the most of things. Robertson even opines that while it’s a crappy job it’s a job. Does any of that sound anything like the 2010 blazing along outside the theater?
The writers — Wesselman, director Mike Miller and Christopher Karr — adapted Aberrant Behavior from scenes and ideas in Karr’s current novel-in-progress. All of it's performed with verve and a deceptively casual precision that might seem at odds with the frantic pace and the cluttered stage but, in fact, never misses a beat.
At the heart of all this merry mayhem and philosophic foolery is co-author, co-director, choreographer and tireless performer Wesselman, a comedian with a true clown’s irony written on his heart.
(Get upcoming performance dates and venue details here.)