I am the B-movie loving, punk rock savior of Chicago theatre. Well, not really…but please let me try to (over-confidently) claim that title for at least a moment. This change in ruling status has been confirmed by a review in The Chicago Reader…well…almost…and overall, this has been a pretty glorious time.
It all began months ago, when I forced my grizzled, unshaven roommate James to watch a backwoods revenge opus called Blood Games with me. A cigarette never far from his yellowed fingertips and a rocks glass, forever spilling over with Diet Coke and whiskey, he looked on at me, from his favored black leather recliner, with an almost tender, parental disbelief. Although his face was ringed with sort of kindness, he was definitely not sharing my enthusiasm for the cinematic retread of I Spit on Your Grave that was spooling out before us – a low budget opus about a traveling female baseball team who, after winning a birthday game against a group of chauvinistic small-town males, soon find themselves being physically assaulted and murdered off by the chagrined losers. Of course, Babe, played with committed athleticism by Laura Albert, and her fellow players, including the spunky Shelley Abblett, who stood out to me as the undefeated, kick ass Donna, triumphed by the final credits – obliterating all obstinate assholes and meek male passers-by. As always, struck by how an exploitation piece could have such obvious social constructs – so many women I knew did deal with harassment and subjugation on a daily basis and triumphantly made it through – I sat down and a wrote a show using the well-worn plot points of my favored exploitation gems mixed with all the feministic thought pieces that I had been compiling from riot grrl albums and periodicals for the past several years. I cast a series of fresh young actresses, many new to the city and some totally new to the acting scene itself – one or two marking the project as their first professional theatrical excursion – and we began a series of rehearsals in various living rooms across the city.
Not only were these women acting out my words – a distinct and precious thrill – but they served as my built in movie buddies, as well. As part of the process, I shared a variety of revenge flicks with them – starting with that (previously mentioned) grimiest Mother of Invention- I Spit on Your Grave. Granted, I skipped over all the drawn out rape sequences, cutting straight to Camille Keaton’s beautiful revenge arc. The southern gothic The Beguiled (about a group of Southern school girls poisoning Clint Eastwood’s charming Northern philanderer also served well… although the rape of Mae Mercer’s Hallie, a plot point that I had forgotten about, caused an uncomfortable moment or two. The fact that Farrah Fawcett actually stops her attack as well as turns the tables on her unshaven transgressor also made Extremities a necessary tool for the celluloid viewing pile…although by that point in time, we all had grown restless with the aggressive pyrotechnics on display and rounded things out by watching John Waters’ Female Trouble, a suggestion from one of the cast members, and a surprisingly appropriate offering considering (title character and perhaps Divine’s great moment) Dawn Davenport’s aggressive no holds barred criminal badassery.
One night, during rehearsal, I even found a reason to throw in Barbi Benton’s Hospital Massacre AKA X-Ray. The show was written in a poetic idiom and there were 3 MacBethian witch style characters in X-Ray that I thought might help illustrate the rhythms that I was looking for in one of the dialogue selections of the show. But admittedly, by then my favored ladies seemed weary of my exploitation loving instructions, so I cooled it with my all too enthusiastic celluloid explorations. Thus our tight knit balance of personalities was restored and anything seemed possible once again.
We even beat the odds, structurally. The owner of Too Far West Cafe, the establishment where we were performing the show, decided he was going to put up a full length mirror in the performance space days before we were to begin rehearsing there. If his plans had gone through, the audience, in essence, would have been watching themselves watch the show. Thankfully, Daniel, the cute bespectacled barista who eventually became the show’s adorably muppet-like mascot, dropped the unwieldy piece of glass just before its installation and it shattered on the ground…allowing us to retain a certain sense of suspension of disbelief.
We weren’t so lucky with the first reviewer, a long feared indie paper mainstay named Jack Helbig, who compared what I thought was Lydia Lunch style outrage to a badly written, overly hysterical after school special. Hoping to mitigate the damage, I waited, squirming with anticipatory anxiety, for The Reader to come out today. As 5pm finally neared, I rushed from the office I work at on 640 N LaSalle to the paper’s headquarters on 11 E. Ohio, skirling through the broad, 4 sectioned contents with both hope and dread. I practically jumped with joy when I finished reading. While not without its criticisms, the author here actually got what we were aiming for and provided me with enough positive verbiage to market the rest of the run with some proper rave statements.
Feeling the triumphant relief expressed in my opening paragraph here, I am proudly strutting across the bridge on LaSalle to Wacker Drive. I’m definitely taking the train home from the Lake station, downtown, off of the illustrious State Street. It is a bit out of the way but I want to be in the middle of a mass population glow, to be throwing out my joy among the thronging urban crowds. I want to fuel my already propulsive energy with the forceful stamp of my fellow city lovers, to feel as if we are all one big creative body, streaming together en mass. I believe I am finally on my way to achieving a consciousness filled with a swaggering essence of peace. I, stupidly, did not click on the self-confidence box when the goddesses of microbiology were creating my make-up at birth and I have stumbled every since, trying to ease my round sense of uneasy wondering into some square, stable peg.
But just as these notions of security begin to take purchase in my essence, I glance into the swirling population storming around me …and I think I spot Lou sweeping past me in the crowd heading in the opposite direction and I gasp. All those motivational building blocks I have just carefully stacked up within me, crash down, shattering like James’ empty whisky glasses around me, cutting a quick and unexpected path to fear & turmoil in the face of this literal ghost.
Lou has been dead for over two years…and it’s been much longer than that since I’ve seen him, face to face. Granted, it has dawned on me, multiple times, as I’ve bludgeoned my way into my early 20s, that despite our familial friendliness, our relationship was far from a kosher one. I’m well aware what happened between us was abusive, but until now I have always sensed a love for him of some sort within me, as well. The mere suggestion of him has never frightened me before.
So, this reaction, this chilled to the bone- heroine in a gothic Henry James story response stuns me. I have no idea where it’s coming from. Could this possibly be the trauma that my therapist Gail has often talked about? She mentioned these feelings might sneak up on me when I was least expecting them. True to that form, I am standing here, stock still, contemplatively considering this — when I realize people are beginning to have to move around me, stalled in mid traffic as I am. So, I recover quickly, give a quick glance behind me and determine, decidedly, that the stranger I have just passed – as I have known all along – was not Lou. I shake it off and head home, eager to call my favorite cast members with the good news. We have a tag line for the show. “Searing…inescapable.” Two words, I suddenly realize, that describe not only our show, but the circumstances of my past, as well.
Note: (My first horror movie buddy was a priest named Lou Hendricks. Several years ago, Hendricks was named by the Western New York Catholic diocese as one of their most unrepentant predators in the ’70s and ’80s. Thus, I grew up watching monster movies with a monster – a man who was like an uncle to our family. Over the next few months, I will be sharing some of my stories from that period of time.)