James Morrow explodes in 'Four Mad Humours'

November 9, 2011

As the melancholic guy in Four Mad Humours, James Morrow gets to play in the sand. “Yeah, I have nice dermabrasion on my skin, lots of scuffs,” he says, rubbing his head. “It takes me back to my baseball roots.” At one point in the piece, the sand stands in for shaving cream.

Four Mad Humours—running Thursday through Sunday at the Viaduct Theatre—is a bi-national, media-heavy piece created by Gerry Trentham of Toronto’s Pounds Per Square Inch company. Live and recorded video feeds enable the audience to see the solos here, by Morrow and Amy Taravella, as well as two in Montreal. At once! That is, if the tech goes well. (It did for recent simultaneous performances in Toronto and Buffalo.)

Each soloist is assigned one of the four ancient humors, once the basis for medical practice: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. If you had more than enough of one of them, you were out of whack, and possibly mad.

Here the performers switch things up—which definitely suits Morrow. Eventually he merges into choleric, or angry, territory.

“I think I’m more of an explosive than a melancholic individual,” he says.

Morrow, 35, hasn’t performed in Chicago in four years, though he grew up here and used to be head of Instruments of Movement, a troupe known for its roots in hip-hop and for performing once in raffia Soundsuits by SAIC’s Nick Cave. Raised by a single mom, Morrow played baseball at Welles, Horner, and Hamlin parks; he started b-boying at Waters Park in Ravenswood, across the street from where his grandparents lived. When he transferred to Northeastern Illinois University, he ended up dropping his baseball scholarship for a dance scholarship.

In Four Mad Humours, he says, “I literally perform catching drills. When we started working on the project [at Montrose Beach], Gerry had a moment where he wanted me to really explode. I started doing blocking exercises in the sand, the kind of movements a catcher does for wild pitches or curve balls and sliders. It became a major part of the piece and the development of my character.”

“I was a very high-energy catcher growing up. Baseball came so natural that I had a hard time dealing with mistakes from other players. I used to get so angry when a teammate made an error. My mother would tell me ‘P.A.—positive attitude’ so that I could let things go. It took a really long time to deal with my anger on the baseball field and in life. I still hear her in my head when I feel that anger bubbling. I use some of that history to tap into the choleric.”

What Morrow calls a “quad screen” will show four videos: real-time live feed of the performance that’s right before your eyes, real-time live feed of the performance in Montreal, and prerecorded performances by the other two humors.

“You get to see all four humors happening at the same time while the live performance is happening,” Morrow says. “It can be extremely intense. But it isn’t by any means melodramatic—there’s lots of joy in it. It’s definitely a roller coaster ride.”

Given all the elements—video, photos, music, texts, movement—“it’s important for the audience to know that there’s no wrong way to look at it,” Morrow says. “I told my mother, ‘If you get overwhelmed, just watch the live performance.’ When in doubt, watch what’s in front of you.”