Kurt Chiang is a member of The Neo-Futurist ensemble, an enigmatic experimental theatre group. Incepted in Chicago in the 80’s, today it boasts the city’s longest running show, “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind,” which features an ever-changing cascade of 30 plays in 60 minutes, three nights a week for the past 24 years.
It feels very reductive to call what Kurt does “experimental theatre” when so much of what The Neo-Futurists do is founded on ingenuity. The ensemble members are not actors–one is hesitant to even call them performers, as much of what they do is a complete reversal of the traditional concept of “performance”–but insist that they are themselves on stage at all time. No portrayals. No personas.
The most common connotations of “experimental theatre,” or “performance art,” instills dichotomies of audience/performers, performance/not performance, construction/deconstruction. While the type of experience the The Neo-Futurists facilitates is undoubtedly performance art, and truly experimental in nature, what it accomplishes simultaneously explodes and diminishes those distinctions entirely. It’s no surprise that The Neo-Futurists have created their own artistic tradition that is entirely groundbreaking, evidenced through the way it has inspired imitators (and even a sister ensemble boasting the same name in New York City) across the country.
It also feels reductive to try and summarize “Analog”–in this case, it is impossible to distinguish art from life. It’s something you’d expect when reading a memoir or watching a documentary, but definitely not while seeing a play.
“Analog” is structured around a monologue which provides a narrative spine to the structure of the play. It attempts to explain why Kurt spent three years of his life transcribing “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, entirely by hand, in wide ruled composition notebooks, in black ink. Early on, Kurt disclaims, “[This attempt] will be like asking a cat why it tipped over the water glass, and the cat just purrs.”
One possible reason for this process is Kurt’s measuring of it against his own experience being diagnosed with cancer when he was just 21 years old. He explains how years of his life had been divided into measures of time: first, school, then, college, then, cancer, then, when his cancer went into remission, a three year period of annual check-ups. These visits were to confirm that the cancer–a mass of cells the size of an orange, lodged between his heart and lungs, which he affectionately named “Sammy”–had not come back. After that time, he was declared “cured.” When he realized there were no more measurements for the next years of his life, he began the process of transcribing “Lord of the Flies.”
While the monologue inspired profound curiosity, the final product of “Analog” on stage now includes a full ensemble that explodes the dialogue of the play into a realm of purgatorial crisis: an attempt at explaining a singular need for physicality amidst the impermeability of both life and inevitable erosion of memory. The ensemble features six other members (all portraying only themselves, as keeping in Neo-Futurist tradition), including Kurt’s stunningly talented wife, Jessica Anne. A poetry MFA candidate and former Neo-Futurist ensemble member, Jessica’s heartbreaking writing and performance serves an entropic role in the penultimate shattering of the entire play–and which also completely destroyed me as an audience member (their final moment on stage together left me sobbing for five minutes after the house lights came on).
This play is truly a rare experience–not only is it a completely original construct of theatre in terms of stage direction and playwriting, but its entire execution is a demonstration of a sophistication of craft that is rarely attempted and less often accomplished. The play begins when you enter the building, touring a transformed space: a mystifying museum containing libraries, handwritten notes, candy dishes, video art, photography, and sound bites. Kurt also significantly fucked with the traditional three-act play, intermingling installation, story arc, dance, intricate light and sound design with a collective narrative that resonates as memoir, literary criticism/philosophy, and poetry.
The end result does not leave one wanting: it is emotional, funny, and–yes–experimental, but what it ultimately accomplishes is just plain good storytelling.
“Analog” is running through April 6 at The Neo-futurist Theater (5153 N. Ashland), Thursday-Sunday nights. Tickets are $20/Thursdays are PAY-WHAT-YOU-CAN (even if you are broke you can see this play). I wrote this because I think it is important that people know about such an original, inspiring, and total cathartic artistic accomplishment. If you have the opportunity, do not squander it, and see this play as soon as possible.