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Theater Review:

I-80 Drama Company’s "NEBRASKOBLIVION" at The Neo-Futurarium

BY LUCIA MAURO

A warning on the back of patrons’ tickets to "Nebraskoblivion" reads: "To bear this ticket is to accept the terms that follow, namely to deny the existence of these words and/or their performance, public or private. No words, texts, errata, appendices, notes or memories shall be mentioned upon or after the evening’s commencement. The use of recording devices is strictly forbidden."

Therefore, the notion of critiquing Chris Conry’s jigsaw-puzzle of a play is already null and void – although the urge to dissect it cannot be so easily contained. Conry, the actual playwright, premiered "Nebraskoblivion" two years ago at the Rhinoceros Theater Festival. The audience gets unexpectedly lured into a mysterious, psychological scavenger hunt as the friends of fictitious playwright Joe Whyte try to piece together fragments of the drama he allegedly wrote before his disappearance.

I-80 Drama Company, a new troupe consisting of several University of Chicago graduates (including Conry and director Susanna C. Gellert), doesn’t settle for linear stories. In fact, "Nebraskoblivion" challenges the very structure of a play – transforming it into a pile of, say, brontosaurus bones that need to be painstakingly connected, detached and reassembled to form a cohesive whole, while seeming to surgically remove the erratic images from one’s dreams and plastering them onto the stage. If this review sounds a bit baffling, it’s because "Nebraskoblivion" has the power to leave audiences in an altered state – one that defies logic.

Such a boundary-eradicating play is also a risky prospect. And Conry’s work, while clever and visionary, has a tendency to ramble on in a confused metaphysical manner and threatens to get stuck in fragmentary oblivion. It has the capacity to prompt audiences to fervently engage in juggling the intersecting stories and stretch every brain muscle to full capacity. Or it can leave viewers bored out of their skulls. I fell somewhere in between those perimeters.

Just when I could no longer stand the gratuitous weirdness of these characters bouncing between 1973 and 1999 (especially an interminable car ride across the galaxies), I was struck by the wit and profundity of one young man’s speech about his love-hate tug-of-war toward children. He brilliantly admits, "I’m no ‘ism’-ist." And Conry manages to skillfully tie together all the stories while avoiding a tidy conclusion.

The fragmentary tone of the piece is established early on when the actors instruct audience members to open the little white envelopes left on their seats. Mine read: "James mails bombs. Kate is pregnant. Mark loses everything." All this came to pass by the end of this intellectual detective play. But the rocky and sprawling journey became more intriguing than a conclusion to which I was already privy.

Conry tackles a vast range of pertinent topics –a married couple facing sexual problems; another unmarried pair struggling with commitment issues; a Unabomber recluse embroiled in Chiapas, Mexico’s war over the Freedom to Farm Act; and the overall collapse of the American Dream. All of these stories move violently across time and space.

The playwright is no doubt influenced by Sam Shepard but employs a style closer to Harold Pinter – except Conry takes the concept of memory manipulation and ultimately negates it. After all, this "play" may have been assembled wrong. "Joe Whyte" doesn’t exist, and someone else may come along and re-interpret these scraps of paper with their sketchy stage directions in a totally new way.

That’s both the brilliance and frustration of "Nebraskoblivion." Human beings seek order and closure (especially at the theater); but Conry refuses to fulfill that need. Then he poses one of the most disturbing questions of all time: Does the universe really care about the human race?

I-80 Drama Company is headed in a bold and daring direction – even if "Nebraskoblivion’s" chaotic tone may annoy a number of viewers. It does provoke thought – and the depth of these thoughts can surface over a few days when you least expect it.

Director Susanna C. Gellert creates a gnawlingly surreal and ominous atmosphere amid moments of brittle humor. Ian Brennan and Chloe Johnston perfectly encapsulate the aching emotional exhaustion of their multitiered characters. Jason Vizza as James the terrorist, despite his wild looks, effectively chooses to underplay his character’s wacked-out zeal and center instead on his misguided sense of justice. Seth Zurer moves dexterously among multiple roles. Only Lauren Carter over acts and races through her lines so furiously many of her words are unintelligible.

In addition to David Wolf’s stark but appropriately fragmentary sets and Joshua Benghiat’s ghoulish lighting, Liza Siegler’s deliberately torn and stitched-together costumes mirror Conry’s frayed and shredded words – capable of ripping apart America’s moral hypocrisy.

I-80 Drama Company’s production of "Nebraskoblivion" runs through August 25 at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland. Tickets: $8-$10. Call 312-458-9777 or log onto www.I80drama.org.

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