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Tracing 'The Perimeter'

October 29, 2004

BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic

Very few words tend to be uttered during the shows created by the Plasticene Physical Theater ensemble. This is a company, after all, that has devoted itself to the art of physical theater -- to exploring the power of the body to speak in ways that have little to do with either dance or speech, but much to do with psychic states.

So it may come as a great surprise to discover just how many texts -- ranging from fiction to sociological and psychological studies -- have served as source material for the development of "The Perimeter," the troupe's latest production, which opened last night at the Viaduct, and which marks the start of this unique group's 10th season.

A chat with Sharon Gopfert, a longtime member of the ensemble who is directing the work (company founder Dexter Bullard, fresh from his success with the Off Broadway production of "Bug," and busy with teaching duties at DePaul University's Theatre School, took a temporary break this time around), reveals a laundry list of books, plays, official documents and videos that the Plasticene performers turned to for inspiration in their collaborative creation of the piece.

Prominent among them is the 1982 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, by the South African-bred Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee. It tells the story of a magistrate in a fictional frontier settlement who for years has been an obedient civil servant, complicit with the ruling regime. After witnessing the cruelty of a visiting interrogator toward a group of prisoners, he is suddenly spurred to an act of rebellion.


  • Through Nov. 21
  • Plasticene Physical Theater at The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western
  • Tickets, $15-$20
  • (312) 409-0400

  • Sound vaguely newsworthy? This should not be surprising. As Gopfert notes, "We are always influenced by what is going on around us in the world at large. And when we e-mailed the author, we were intrigued to learn that no less a team than composer Philip Glass and British playwright Christopher Hampton were already at work on an opera version of Coetzee's book."

    "The Perimeter," however, is not anything even approaching an adaptation of the book. It is simply thematically related.

    "We were interested in exploring the idea of somebody 'coming in from outside,' crossing borders, and we wanted to consider aspects of colonialism and the idea of centers of power and authority, both geographical and human," said Gopfert, who is herself something of a border-crosser. The daughter of a German father and American mother, she grew up in Stuttgart and Franconia ("a very pretty German wine village"), dropped out of high school, came to the America as an au pair at the age of 19, and eventually got hooked on theater at Marymount College.

    In addition to the Coetzee book, some of the sources that influenced "The Perimeter" -- whether in terms of story line, characters, images, gestures, objects or sonic environment -- include: Ted Conover's Coyotes (about those who conduct Mexicans across the border to the U.S.); the text of the 1949 Geneva Conventions regarding the protection of civilians in time of war; "Obedience," the controversial 1994 video by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, a look at individual obedience to authority versus personal conscience as demonstrated in an experiment involving the administering of electric shock; and Harold Pinter's play, "Mountain Language," about tyranny and the loss of one's mother tongue.

    "We didn't want to tackle the Abu Ghraib prison situation in Baghdad head on," said Gopfert. "But those images were out there too."

    All this may make Plasticene's modus operandi seem intensely cerebral, which could not be further from the truth.

    "In fact, we begin rehearsals without knowing what the play is," said Gopfert, a hint of panic in her voice. "We've got the title, and some abstract ideas, and it's the director's job to propose certain exercises through which the ensemble can create scenes. From there it's a process of creating transitions for those scenes as we start to weave a story." More often than not, physical movement and sound take the place of dialogue.

    Also intrinsic to the storytelling is the use of objects. And if the directors of Home Depot were to really think outside the box, they would immediately hire the Plasticenes to star in their commercials.

    "The Perimeter," for example, involves the use of buckets ("big enough to put your head in," according to Gopfert), and various widths of PVC tape and sensors ("they're embedded in the floor and track the motion of some of the characters, which in turn influences surveillance video and sounds already programmed into a computer, from footsteps on gravel to the tearing of scripts"). If all this suggests Big Brother and "1984" (the latest Lookingglass Theatre show), Gopfert freely admits that "the times are such that many of us may have the same ideas. There's clearly a reason we all want to look at such things now."

    For this show the Plasticenes will be transforming the vast Viaduct space into a sort of elaborate landing strip.

    "Our concept of space is connected to the idea of a compass, with lots of different runways leading out to a platform," said Gopfert.

    And for the first time, the cast for a Plasticene show will be multi-generational -- crucial to creating the sense of a a real family. Joining Mark Comiskey, Luis Crespo, Tere Parkes and Brian Shaw will be veteran Chicago dancer-choreographer Nana Shineflug, with Eric Leonardson and Robb Drinkwater designing the sound, Carrie Kennedy creating the lighting effects and Stefan Mazurek overseeing the video.

    Asked if she has ever been in an "outpost" situation herself, Gopfert happily supplies the details of an adventure.

    "I spent time in a rural part of Brazil three years ago, where I was doing a theater project with street kids. After the work was done I stayed on, living in a place where you had to catch crab and search for fruit for meals. At one point we took a long journey to get potatoes. Nobody warned me the trip would involve crossing an inlet while holding my shoes on top of my head."

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