The Whipping Hand
Disjecta, 116 NE Russell through August 4
The Whipping Hand is a hodgepodge of theater, music, film, and dance, combined in a production billed as "a cabaret of sorts." It takes place in the mind of an unconscious man, and the patchwork of scenes creates a narrative that invokes the non-linear, visceral transmission of dreaming. The cast is huge and consists of seemingly every quirky, interesting young lady in town. The costumes look like the result of a daylong garage sale hop, mixing ruffled dresses and paratrooper boots with ripped fishnets and housedresses. They're fun to watch even before they start performing.
Margery Fairchild stars as a curiously and likeably morbid character. Her singing voice is girl-next-door pretty, but it's difficult to pick out the words. That's a shame, since Fairchild wrote them herself, and the lyrics may contain clues that would illuminate the overall performance.
Part of the reason this production works is that it engages the audience in active analysis, hurling vague and fascinating stimuli. It drifts in and out of historical context and fairyland, where whispers of storylines dictate the mood. At times, The Whipping Hand is funny, when the acting works up to an aggressive pitch. At one point, the chorus becomes a mob of rat-like creatures, sniffing and nipping. Another scene involves a squadron of housewives milling about the audience, then congregating to perform a hilarious group orgasm/hemorrhage during which they "give birth" to cans of Spam. It's hammy, and uncomfortable enough to be one of the show's most amusing scenes. Half-naked women make bizarre, abrupt appearances, spouting nuggets of art philosophy interjected between scenes.
Although it's never clear what it is precisely, the story manages to convey a range of communications, and Fairchild oscillates winningly between tragedy and playfulness. The film opening the show gives a synopsis of the dream, with sped up dancers whirling in and out of a man's bedroom, tending, lounging, and spinning. It's fragmented and disorienting, but not at all frustrating. The music is one of the production's strongest elements. The Michigan Avenue Social Orchestra plays live accompaniment, heavy with horns and a traipsing gypsy feel that enhances the overall impression of art bandit charm. In particular, the songs in which they accompany Fairchild have the same time-transcendent quality that haunts musical showtunes, one that manages to encapsulate a sound that is contextually appropriate, yet eludes trend.
The space gets extremely muggy, but this problem is solved by the distribution of paper fans at each table. Their fluttering becomes a part of the show's atmosphere, adding a mad tea-party touch to the experience. It's emulation of a dream state ends in the with the viewer having been engrossed in an episode that was gripping, but not piercing, and brimming with whimsical associations. MARJORIE SKINNER