Duchamping at the Bit

Lulu Ward, John Flores and Lainie Simonton do everything but catch fire in (The) Book of Matches.
Scott Osborne

Oprah Winfrey needed to prove the depth and breadth of Sir Anthony Hopkins' talent. So the other day on her show she asked the Oscar-winning actor to read aloud from the Chicago Yellow Pages. He played right along, declaiming with great flourish: "Professional Nail Care! Women and men! Two dollars off!" He continued on, impersonating Marlon Brando and Richard Burton in an elegant recitation of listings as the audience ate it up like fava beans. The master thespian had taken what could have been a humiliating talk show stunt and given it real bravura.

So what would happen if lesser actors were handed pages and pages of similarly banal gobbledygook and asked to perform it for an audience? Well, you might end up with (The) Book of Matches, a new work by Our Endeavors Theater Collective, or Margo Veil: An Entertainment, the latest waste of an evening presented by the Undermain Theatre. After these, the Yellow Pages sounds like pure poetry.

(The) Book of Matches at least has a reason for its weirdness. OETC conceived the 40-minute performance piece (it can't really be called a play) to accompany the Dallas Museum of Art's exhibition of works by French Dada-ist Marcel Duchamp. Written by John Flores, who also appears in it, the (The) experience pays homage to the artist's oeuvre, which incorporated unexpected moving parts, bits of deconstructed machines, found objects, everyday appliances and snatches of language.

The performance features Lainie Simonton, dressed provocatively in a black tutu and red bra, and Lulu Ward, doll-like face frozen in a ghoulish smile. With Flores, they flip, flop and fly around a corner of DMA's Chilton Gallery, moving like mechanical toys wound just a tad too tightly. "Brother, can you paradigm?" Ward asks over and over, to no one in particular. They slap themselves, do silly walks, crawl up and over a padded tabletop and ignore the sudden intrusions of sirens and deafening buzzers provided by sound designer Frank Mendez, who sits on the floor behind a pile of noisemakers and handheld lights, playing disjointed accompaniment on electric keyboards and a child's xylophone. "Rinse, lather, repeat!" the actors shout. They chant like a mantra a series of other ordinary phrases: "How does this fit? Can't you get more? I'm dying over here. I simply must have them."

They go through all their motions with great physical abandon, working up quite a lather themselves. But is what they're doing art? That's the whole argument about Dada-ism. Duchamp signed his name on a ceramic urinal, titled it "Fountain" and hung it on a wall. Critics scoffed in 1917, but it's now considered by many experts to be the single most influential piece of modern art. Our Endeavors' little show is no masterpiece, but there might be those who glean from it some artistically rendered, deeply ironic message about media noise and the futility of existence...or something. (The) Book of Matches strikes me as just a silly excuse to draw a crowd.

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Twice as long as (The) and not (half) as kooky-fun is Undermain's Margo Veil: An Entertainment. With a title like that, they're really courting disaster, because if it isn't entertaining from the get-go, then they've broken a promise to the audience.

So they owe us one. Margo Veil, by writer Len Jenkin, finds eight actors playing many parts in an 80-minute, deconstructed, Dada-esque jumble of not very interesting characters and not very good singing and dancing.

The show starts conventionally enough with a narrator (Bruce DuBose) introducing Margo (Shannon Kearns), a young actress whose appearance in a Broadway flop called Distant Candelabras has her yearning to return home to the Midwest. She takes a job accompanying a corpse by train to Rapid City, South Dakota, for which she'll earn $500 and a black Valentino dress. Things begin to get strange for Margo when she delivers the casket and its contents and meets an escaped convict (Jack Birdwell). They fall in love and begin some sort of Hitchhiker's Guide-type road trip. At this point in the proceedings, it all goes into wonky non-linear mode. Suddenly Margo is played by another actress after some incident with a soul-changing machine run by a woman named Big Betty (Rhonda Boutte) who wears a coat with a stuffed pink penis hanging off of it.

A sequence with a radio evangelist (Matthew Posey) interrupts the previous scene and spins everything off in a different direction. Then on comes a Lithuanian girl, Ruta (Carrie Bourne), and her grandfather (Posey again), who talk about milking their cows and the Holocaust. A guy named Dwayne (Joel McDonald) sings a song about Bo Diddley being a gunslinger. Some people are poisoned (including Posey yet again, this time doing a really bad Vincent Price), and they fall off a balcony.

There are many scenes on trains (pairs of chairs lined up center stage). In one a girl named Roxanne (Brady Fuqua) delivers this speech:

Look out there...Strip mall with a Laundromat, Dunkin' Donuts, tropical fish store, tank glows in the window, one huge angelfish gliding alone and slow in the green light. Turn and turn again under the cold stars. A vacant lot overrun by weeds, plastic trash bags torn open and my baby brother squats by a fire, stupid spider tattoo on his left cheek, blood under his fingernails, dirty piece of string knotted around his neck. There's the Riverside Motel, naked people on the sagging beds, full of guilt and fear, fucking away their troubles in the dawn's early light. Tractor-trailer out of Memphis hauling chicken parts...

And it goes on some more. And then some more after that. The list from hell. Roxanne talks about Santa Claus on a milk crate, and she meets a magician (DuBose, doing a terrible Bela Lugosi) and they blather on about, oh, this, that and the other, for what seems like another long stretch of eternity.

At no time in Margo Veil do any two characters ever engage in real conversation. They just talk at and around each other in wordy strings of verbiage, sometimes spouting nonsensical clumps of language. There are mentions of "fog" and "the language of bees." They talk forever about nothing.

And when it seems like they can't possibly keep it up, there are still 45 minutes left of Margo Veil (and no intermission).

There's some hint in Jenkin's script that this "entertainment" was written as a sincere, if rather bizarre, tribute to old radio shows of the 1930s and '40s. With all its choppy stories and character-jumping, it is a bit like listening to someone switch radio channels too quickly between vintage radio dramas such as The Shadow, One Man's Family and Stella Dallas. But at least there's an "off" switch on a radio.

Now in its 22nd season, Undermain Theatre continues to specialize in staging weird, nearly unwatchable works in its gloomy, subterranean space. Perhaps this company is an acquired taste, like arugula and televised darts. They do have at least one devotee. On opening night of Margo Veil: An Entertainment, one gentleman laughed like a hyena all the way through it. Most everybody else just sat quietly, trying to figure out what in the bloody blue blazes was going on. I'll admit it--I was licked. Any page of the phone book would make more sense to me and sound just as good read aloud.

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