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All Things Considered

Theater Oobleck: Making 'weird' plays about 'strange people' for 25 years

Colm O'Reilly and Diana Slickman as Brendan and Ellen in There Is A Happiness That Morning Is (John W. Sisson Jr.)

Theater Oobleck has been creating strange plays about strange people for 25 years now.

At this stage of the game, the troupe and their productions generally get a good critical reception, whether they open in Chicago or elsewhere (their plays have been produced in places as far-flung as Houston, Los Angeles, London and Helsinki).

But founding member and playwright Mickle Maher says it wasn't always all hearts and roses. Back in the day, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, getting started was rough going. Maher likens it to a boxer with his teeth knocked down his throat – a defeat on the verge of disaster. 

Still, the company figured it out. Their first play did succeed. And Oobleck found its identity.

"It was the first time I really thought we can do this, we can pull this off," Maher said. "We are a gang, we’re a group, we’re ready to go."

Core members of the Chicago-based troupe (13 in all) create plays that mainly take their cues from other artists and/or their works of art: The hunchback of Victor Hugo's novel, the music of Beethoven, famed lover Casanova.

But each one gets the Oobleck treatment.

Maher describes it as "making fun of great works or tearing them apart or having people talk about them in ways that are insane or wrong or putting them through the filter of a plot that sort of abuses them in some way is interesting and fun for people who are interested in those works."

But beyond just fun, Oobleck creates works that feel emotionally true, and take on universal themes.

Mahler and Mark Messing's opera, The Hunchback Variations, features said bell ringer and Ludwig Van Beethoven arguing over an elusive sound in a Chekhov play. Obscure to be sure, but it's also a revealing and fascinating take on creativity and collaboration. And despite the pedantic setup, it's a work I found frequently moving.

Oobleck has also made fresh fare out of 19th-century poetry in their ongoing series Baudelaire in a Box, the work of members Dave Buchen and Chris Schoen, along with other performers.

Oobleck's current show There Is A Happiness That Morning Is explores middle age, and middle marriage, and death.

The play debuted in Chicago in 2011. It centers on Ellen and Bernard, a long-married pair of academics. After a night of public passion, they find themselves in the midst of a professional and personal crisis.

To make sense of it all, they turn to their muse: poet William Blake. 

And at first, the play moves along as you might expect. They both recite poetry. They both also analyze poetry. But then another character enters the classroom - and along comes a fight scene. 

Maher said after writing a play about "very repressed" characters (George W. Bush, John Kerry and Jim Lehrer, who star in his play The Strangerer, sort of a mash-up of the Camus novel and our own existential format, the presidential debate), he wanted to write about wilder emotional fare, like love and sex.

"It was important to me that the characters be passionate about their subject matter. And anybody who's ever had a Blake instructor or professor, those guys - and they’re almost always guys (laughs) they’re always weird old guys – are always very passionate, very strange people."

But to take the strange and make it achingly familiar requires work. And that’s where Oobleck’s unconventional though rigorous approach comes in.

Oobleck plays have no director. And actors have the final say on line-reads.

"The playwright is definitely the chief lobbyist for his or her own work," Maher said. "But they have to lobby and petition directly to the actors, and the actors have to directly try to engage the playwright. And so those two fundamental artistic forces in the theater are hooking horns and working things out in a face-to-face manner."

Oobleck also benefits by facing off with its audience – long before the curtain rises on opening night. During rehearsals, the cast invites so-called “outside eyes” –  friends and strangers – to come watch them perform and give feedback.

Maher acknowledged the process can be trying. But as he said, "It is in fact what every theater maker and theater artist has to eventually grapple with. Because you are addressing your work not to a single person or reviewer or critic. You are addressing your piece to this mysterious group mind, this audience monster."

'There Is A Happiness that Morning Is' runs through March 10th at Victory Gardens Theater.


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