Past Imperfect, Present Tense

15 Head reinvent their tricky theatrical grammar

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

Go to enough theater and the whole world seems draped in costume. Visit the airport and watch the waiting areas near flights to and from Nebraska. Everyone there wears bright-red Huskers football shirts, jackets, and caps. When leaving Nebraska, natives have seemingly come to a consensus about their costume: They will dress as Husker fans, thereby letting the world know their point of origin. If you ever see a child wandering through the streets of Bangladesh, rubbing his teary eyes and wearing a red Huskers T-shirt, you now have the tools to return this child to his rightful home.

How frustrating it is, then, when people don't dress appropriately for the type they play. Should I find Chad Sylvain weeping in the streets of Katmandu, what would I do? I would never guess to send him back to 15 Head: A Theatre Lab. But this is the company he has worked for, in a variety of positions, since its second season, and it is for 15 Head that he has created and directed The Rush. The play, though resolutely avant-garde, is wackier than usual for the company, rejecting conventional narrative in favor of dozens of overlapping stories about our American obsession with speed. Historic scenes detailing the invention of timesaving technologies (telephones, fax machines, computers) bump headlong into strange satiric episodes about a future in which events move too fast, conversations now involving mere monosyllables. One would expect the author of this text to wear severe black ensembles and thick, pink-tinted spectacles. One would be wrong.

Seated in the audience for The Rush, a perplexed look on his face, Sylvain seems an unlikely match for a company that specializes in radical explorations of theatrical staging. He is tall and affable, with a wardrobe that seems to consist entirely of business-casual attire--khaki slacks and a cotton, button-down shirt. Sylvain's personal costume designer has made some very strange choices: In Katmandu, I would put Sylvain in an oversized UPS box and ship him directly to the Park Square Theatre.

When I have spoken with Sylvain in the past, he has always appeared bedeviled by 15 Head. While acting in his occasional role as publicist for the company, Sylvain has expressed fascination with the company's unusual process for generating new theater. This has been an extensive improvisational approach, in which members of the cast, until recently under the guiding hand of company cofounder Julia Fischer, would dismantle the basic text of their play through techniques that ranged as far afield as making collages. Their improvs frequently strayed into obtuse metaphorical territory, but rarely got around to winding their way back toward anything that an audience might understand.

The results might involve the cast performing their roles with deadpan voices and jerky, mechanical movements--an expressionist drama set in a robot factory. The Insatiate Countess from a few seasons back, for example, seemed less like the Jacobean script that inspired it than like some Noh drama that had been scored to European techno. And the show might as well have been performed in Japanese for the amount of literal sense it made to its audiences--at least then certain bilinguals might have understood it. Sylvain, as company dramaturg, could sometimes be heard talking about how to get such a show to be more comprehensible for an audience.

But Julia Fischer's productions also had a great, almost epic beauty to them, culminating in Chéri, Fischer's last play with the company, which included some of the most alarmingly intimate images I have seen in a theater. The amicable departure of Fischer last spring raised questions about the future of the company. While she remains onboard as an advisor, she was the last of the troupe's founders to go but for Joe Stanley, whose involvement is mostly limited to production and design. It is notoriously difficult for a theater to survive the loss of its founders--especially a company that uses so mysterious a collective process to generate its plays. 15 Head's first play of this season, RED/instructions to follow, produced under the guiding hand of longtime company actor Jon Micheels Leiseth, felt like a transitional work--it not only made more intuitive sense than past productions but also seemed, at times, like an awkward pastiche of 15 Head techniques. The incomprehensibility was gone, yes, but so was much of the beauty.

And it's still gone, for the most part--The Rush is, if anything, a homely play. The actors (including company regulars Kim Schultz, Leif Jurgensen, and Leiseth) are decked out in thrift-store suits, stepping from behind rolling screens into the glare of spotlights to deliver their dialogue, sometimes with dizzying speed. The staging is uncluttered, imaginative, and ugly. But then, ugly has its place too. Sylvain's play has a barbed sense of humor, in which a computer keyboard can dismantle a young woman's life--each of her significant experiences having been assigned a numerical code.

And in the place of Fischer's disturbingly intimate images, Sylvain has crafted one dazzling comic stage picture. He gives us a vision of the future in which the harried and the bewildered beg advice from a foppish, eye-rolling advisor (Craig Michael), who sits fiddling with his hair while countering their questions with whittling sarcasm.

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