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Friday, January 19

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Detour

This wasn't just another night at the theater.

The guests were called to the performance by the sounds of a hurdy-gurdy. Everyone grabbed their food and drinks, gathered in the theater and found seats near the stage. Only the theater was a living room in an apartment on Chicago's Northwest Side, and the stage was really the living room couch.

We were about to see a preview of a new salon series from local performance group Xwing, and nobody knew quite what to expect. But that might be just the way Xwing prefers it.

Xwing got its name from its beginnings as the Experimental wing of the now-defunct Chicago-based European Repertory Company. According to the company's biography, Xwing was established to facilitate "experimental performances and work associated with the early avant-garde." The group was founded in 2004 by Nicholas Lowe, who was then a visiting professor in the Master of Arts in Arts Administration program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lowe was already an established visual artist with extensive experience teaching the arts, exhibiting work and working in arts project management in Europe before he came to Chicago in 2003.

Through the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Lowe gained critical attention for his photographic work concerning subjects affected by HIV and AIDS. But even in his work as a visual artist, Lowe has always been engaged with elements of performance.

In a recent email interview, Lowe explained, "I have always worked with performance, and from the mid-1990s onwards started developing a series of works that were intended to facilitate dialogue and discussion around HIV and AIDS. Aside from the images I made with people, possibly the most interesting things for me about the photographic work with people affected by HIV and AIDS were the discussions and recollections, the storytelling that went on around the photography."

Xwing member Carolyn Hoerderman was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when she remembers meeting Lowe when he came to teach at the school in 2003. "I met Nick while giving him his first tour of the School of the Art Institute," she recalled. "I was working on my Masters in Art Education as well as working in the administration office [where] Nick's office would be. We used to talk in his office because he had the most interesting books about food and opera and theory and...I couldn't stop going into his office!"

Hoerderman had been involved with the European Repertory Company for 12 years, and she introduced Lowe to Kirk Anderson, then the artistic director of the ERC. Lowe says Xwing was formed when the three of them "realized we had common interests in creating performances from early avant-garde texts."

"I was so excited to bring Nick into the mix," Hoerderman exclaimed. "And I am so pleased that we can continue to work [as Xwing] now that the ERC is no longer producing."

The other members of Xwing include Kathryn Daniels, Dan Findley, Rachel Frizzi and Bryan Gallardo. Findley, Frizzi and Gallardo met while they were students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where they had performed together. Frizzi also did some work as a costume designer and stage manager for the European Repertory Company, where she remembers meeting Carolyn Hoerderman. Frizzi explained Xwing's origins by saying, "We had all expressed a desire to work together because of our shared love of the strange and different. It wasn't until Nick arrived with his puppets that we truly became as strange as we had hoped."

12112006_xwing.jpg

Yes, puppets have played an integral role in Xwing's work from the very start. "I like the immediacy of puppets," Lowe said. "Puppetry is a theatre form that relies on emotions. It is visual and optical, but it is read and perceived through emotional responses. It only works because the audience is willing to accept the animation of lifeless objects as standing in for real things."

The group's first performance, which took place at Links Hall in December 2004, included elaborate, handcrafted puppets and masks. Entitled A Manifest Imposture, the work was an original adaptation of a text written by Alfred Jarry, the avant-garde French writer who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jarry was a major influence on the mid-20th century playwrights of the so-called Theatre of the Absurd, which included writers such as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet. But Jarry is also a particular favorite of the members of Xwing.

In October 2005, Xwing participated in "Master Nowhere's Lost Carnival," a one-of-a-kind event that was produced by Chicago's House of Payne art collective, which includes Xwing member Dan Findley. The ambitious event evoked a turn-of-the-20th-century traveling carnival, complete with freak show, gaming alley, wandering performers and main stage events.

The following month Xwing took part in Links Hall's experimental "Drive By" season with Parking Lot, a unique collection of performances that took place in cars parked in a parking lot near Links Hall.

But, not to be outdone, for their Spring 2007 season the members of Xwing have developed a series of short plays, including drama and puppetry, to be performed in private homes. They call it their "Calling Card Theatre" series, and they want to bring the theatre to you.

"The salon series aims to be what the salons of the 17th and 18th centuries were, but without the lead-based face powder and bourgeois attitude," Frizzi said. "We wish to gather interesting people together in the home of an enthusiastic host and expose them to a stimulating night of theater that is unique to that night alone. It's a night of amusement and surprise, and hopefully we can open some eyes and drop some jaws."

"It's edgy and intended to be exciting and engaging. Performances are private, and they can be for as many or as few people as the host desires. There is a price per performance that is negotiable but reasonable -- details can be requested," Lowe explained. (See the end of this article to find out how to contact Xwing.)

The host gets to choose two or three works from a "menu" of plays listed on the group's website. The offerings include two works by the 19th century French writer Rachilde. Her writings are characterized by their unflinching exploration of sexual politics, and frequent themes include androgyny and gender inversion. The Transparent Doll takes place in the host's living room, while Pleasure is performed at the dining room table. The menu also includes works by Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett and a traditional Punch and Judy puppet show.

Nicholas Lowe has been performing Punch and Judy since he was about 16 years old, but he said, "[I] had never been able to find a way to integrate this with the more mainstream art aspects of my work."

Perhaps, until now.

All the Punch and Judy puppets are handcrafted from wood and cloth by Lowe. According to Lowe, it takes him about 4-5 days to carve one puppet head, plus an additional day or two to paint and costume the puppet. Most of the puppets are carved from lime wood, chosen for its toughness, since the puppets must endure serious beatings (literally) during the play. Regardless, Lowe says, "I bet after every show there is at least one repair. I do paint touch-ups all the time."

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy is a contemporary interpretation of the early 19th century English texts and performed in a puppet theatre designed and built by Xwing. It is raucous, bawdy and a favorite of both the performers and the audience.

"In Punch I like the raw humor," said Lowe. "It's honest and it's about real lives and family trauma, but it's presented in such a way as to allow an audience to understand the inevitability and frailty of human life without being too serious."

Frizzi is one of the puppeteers. "I love Punch and Judy," she admitted. "It's chaotic and fast-paced and we always end up breaking a sweat after we're through, and I think that's a good thing."

One major way in which Xwing updated the Punch and Judy play is in the group's fresh interpretation of the traditional bottler role. Hoerderman plays a Brooklyn graduate student presenting her oral examination to an imaginary panel of professors. It's a great foil which allows Hoerderman to perform the traditional role of "translating" Punch's speech and narrating the puppet play while also allowing her to share some history and background of the Punch and Judy theatre.

Alfred Jarry is quoted as stating, "To keep up even a worthwhile tradition means vitiating the idea behind it, which must necessarily be in a constant state of evolution. It is mad to try to express new feelings in a 'mummified' form." Xwing takes this principle to heart by bringing audiences fresh interpretations of older texts and traditions such as the Punch and Judy theatre. Frizzi echoed this sentiment, saying, "I love working with Xwing because everything is fluid. We develop shows in a way that allows them to change and evolve over time. Nothing we do is set in stone."

I think Jarry would approve.

~*~

For more information about Xwing or the "Calling Card Theatre" series, you may visit nicholaslowe.co.uk or email Nicholas Lowe at nlowe1[at]saic.edu.

 

About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is assistant editor of Gapers Block and its resident librarian. She manages the Gapers Block Book Club and in her scant free time writes at That Rabbit Girl.

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