By Colin Douglas
Facility Theatre is a Chicago collective that relishes searching for and locating rarely seen works and original plays and producing them with a fresh eye and an alternative perspective. With their current production, Dado, Facility’s resident director has taken The Ruse of Medusa, a forgotten short play by Erik Satie and put her own stamp on it. To say that Windy City audiences have never seen anything like this is an understatement.
Eccentric French composer and pianist Satie wrote this unusual little melodrama in 1913, later adding the incidental music and seven little dances for the piece. It was occasionally produced in private salons around Paris, but the most noteworthy production was an English translation presented in 1948 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It featured the musical talent of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller in the title role.
The plot of this 60-minute play is slight but unbelievably bizarre. An eccentric, somewhat confused elderly aristocrat named Baron Medusa has arranged a good marriage for his daughter, Frisette. As they await the arrival of Astolpho, his carefully-chosen young suitor, the Baron’s mechanical monkey, Jonas, and his willful, disobedient valet, Polycarpe, prepare the salon for their guest. That’s the play in a nutshell, but Dado has embellished her production of this absurdist comedy with plenty of offbeat, oddball antics, heavy with the theme of overindulgence.
The theatergoer descends the stairs of the Chopin Theatre and enters a room that closely resembles the parlor of a turn of the century bordello. There they find rows of couches and upholstered chairs, all facing a tiny stage. The playing area is cleverly lit by Clare Chrzan, with an assortment of ornate table lamps and crystal chandeliers. Suddenly the audience notices that the stage is housing an entertaining, if cacophonous, menagerie of screeching monkey musicians. Musical Director Sam Clapp leads this madcap troupe of instrumentalists, which includes Jordan Tragash, Nick Cuellar, Wilson Tanner Smith and Zach Herbert.
The swinging, symphonic simians, joined by Jonas the mechanical monkey (played by Brian Shaw), wildly perform snatches of songs and memorable melodies on their various instruments. They’re accompanied on keyboard by Taylor Galloway who’s ridiculously dressed in Shirley Temple drag. The actor, who plays Frisette, also proves to be an accomplished musician. But he provides hilarity when, becoming frustrated with the screaming monkeys, he begins smacking them with his paper fan. Perhaps bipolar, Frisette then goes back to the piano, but has a change of heart and starts gently applying lip gloss on the chimps. And all this is just the prelude to the madness that’s about to ensue.
David Cerda, the mega-talented artistic director of Hell in a Handbag Productions, enters as the over-the-top Baron. He is, as always, magnificent in this exaggerated role. This rubber-faced actor, whose bulging eyes, arched brows and expressive mouth are his trademark, makes this part all his own. Sporting a wig cap that’s been snagged full of holes, Cerda’s own hair has been pulled through, cleverly resembling Medusa’s writhing snakes. Later in the play, he wears several outrageous wigs to further enhance Kotryna Hilko’s imaginative costumes.
Cerda’s joined by Jenni M. Hadley, entering as Polycarpe, and dressed as a manservant. She has a violin in her hand, and it turns out she’s quite the singer and fiddler. She adds to the interludes with her considerable musical skill. As Alstolpho, Frisette’s handsome, mustached suitor, Laurie Roberts, also in male drag, bursts upon the scene with her accordion. She plays, sings and dances and finally ends up hitched to her intended by the conclusion of the evening.
For the wedding, the audience becomes the guests and are given bowler hats, Roger Stone glasses and led dancing into the next room, where the ceremony will take place. There a bridal bower has been erected. The construction houses the entire cast, now all instrumentalists and singers, and resembles a park bandstand. It’s been hung with yards of blue chiffon and streamers, making it look like a giant octopus or jellyfish.
Like Satie’s original play, the show is filled with music from many different eras. The songs in this 21st century production include tin pan alley standards, classical melodies and popular disco songs. The musical highlight of the finale is a sparkling mirror ball-lit sing-along presentation of Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park.”
Dado’s production is wacky, enjoyable and engagingly diverting. While it’s never actually clear what Baron Medusa’s ruse is supposed to be, the director’s certainly infused this surreal comedy with wit and whimsy. Fortunately she has a talented cast, a terrific support team and the perfect location to bring Satie’s early absurdist comedy to life.
Facility Theatre presents “The Ruse of Medusa” through April 7 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.