I spent about four hours at First Night and saw a bunch of stuff, but the highlight was the 7 p.m. show by five members of this Chicago performance collective. They're a group of writers who perform their own stuff – personal material, but not always in an obvious way, and completely unpredictable.
The show was called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, subtitled "Thirty Plays in 60 Minutes." They're not kidding: The stage at the O'Reilly was strung with a line about 9 feet in the air, and sheets of paper with the numbers 1-30 hung on it. The audience was instructed to yell out a number; a performer tore that sheet down, and away they went.
This wasn't improv; these were scripted pieces, some a few seconds long, other a few minutes. But you could get anything from the mad slapstick of the opener, "Half Naked Ninja Pudding Pie" or the word jazz of "Just Give Me A Jamaican Accent and a Calculator" to the Chaplinesque, audience-member-participation comedy of "Making Love Out of Nothing At All," the Dada-esqe "Sitting on a Rainbow" or the political one-liner "Republican Compassion in Action."
Almost everything worked, whether a bit of earnest spoken-word poetry or the raucously funny "Art, I Birth You," a take-down of pretentious artsy types that the cast delivered with each of them in a sort of gynecological position, one heel on each armrest of an unsuspecting patron.
The wonderfully smart, up-for-anything cast included Megan Mercier, Lisa Buscani, Dean Evans, Jay Torrence and Jessica Anne. Torrence was an audience favorite – a linebackerishly built guy, shaved bald, who could do backflips (as a "ninja") and was seen in his underwear at least three times. Anne, meanwhile, showed a special facility for mad runs of language.
Especially gratifying was the audience response. I'd done a short preview of the group's two First Night shows, and I knew the troupe was unconventional and could be provocative. The crowd, as one might expect at first night, was pretty mixed, but mostly folks who, I'd imagine, see a lot more Steelers games than they do experimental theater.
Shows what I know: The crowd, by and large, was into it. (A few walk-outs did occur after a passing gibe at the Tea Party, and I sensed a certain audience unease when a piece that started out with the three women washing their hair turned into an indictment of military torture.)
In fact, a highlight came when an audience-participation piece involved a silver-mustached guy in Penguins regalia. Mercier performed "homo-paternus," a monologue about her dad's wariness about gay men, while sitting this guy in a chair on stage and adorning him in eyeliner, rouge and lipstick. And he hammed along like a vaudeville vet.
Sniff ... enough to make you proud of Pittsburgh (not to mention Penguins fans).
The Neo-Futurists have been around for years; this was, I think, their first appearance in Pittsburgh. If some presenter in town is smart, it won't be their last.