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Cosmic Spelunker Theater wages War

War-mongers beware. Part-autobiographical reminiscences, part-mime, part-broad commedia dellíarte, with some poetry thrown in, the two-man Cosmic Spelunker Theater will present a performance art smorgasbord titled Waltzing to War at AS220 on Saturday, September 4.

Boston-based performers Ian Thal and James Van Looey developed the piece from a 15-minute starting place late in 2002. By now it is nearly an hour long and the topics of its sketches range from Abu Ghraib to peace breaking out. At AS220 it will be presented with a shorter mime piece called "Gemini.".

A video of a performance earlier this year pulled together a lot of related elements under the war-theme umbrella. In white-face and mime stripes, at first wearing a WWI helmet, Thal and the much taller Van Looey exchange bows with increasing elaborateness, then dance briefly to the "Blue Danube." Before long such civilized interests are abandoned, as Van Looey issues cautions about not speaking out while Thal in a carrion-bird mask fearfully echoes him with: "We donít want to end up in a shallow grave, dusted with lye. Shhh, silence ó donít let anyone know about whatís happening over there, or whatís happening right here ó silence! Silencia!"

From stylized to realistic to surreal, the vignettes accumulate ó and not without considerable satirical humor. There is a fantasy of placing busboys and "kitchen staff strike teams" in restaurants to monitor our nationís enemies. There is a suggestion to train fish "to swim against the flow of enemy plumbing, to strike the enemy where he sits." Of course, serious concerns return. Thal, now 34, tells how when he was a boy, his parents wouldnít let him have a toy gun, and how his father, who worked for the government, was literally sent to Alaska in retribution for Vietnam War-protesting. Van Looey tells of his fear of being sent to Vietnam, worried about carrying a "portable sniper target for an antenna" in a radio platoon, but how he was instead sent to Okinawa.

The two performers have been staples of the Boston poetry and spoken word scene. Van Looey has taught mime ó including to Thal ó and has run poetry workshops for homeless people. Also a poet, Thalís undergraduate degree in philosophy brought him to Boston College for graduate study in the subject. But in the mid-í90s he began publicly reading his poetry. He has also studied with agit-prop puppet-master Peter Schumann at Bread &Puppet Theater inVermont.

Van Looey was on the road and unavailable, but Thal spoke by phone about Waltzing to War.

Q: What about the commedia dell-arte style attracted you?

A: Well, the stock characters are very interesting. They are this link between vaudeville and the Shakespearean theatre that we know, with all the fools and "mechanicals." But also the connection with the circus and shamanism, even. For this particular show, James and I were definitely thinking of commedia characters. We were thinking about which characters resonated most with us. James very much felt that Pierrot, whoís kind of this put-upon, idealistic Everyman. And I think this comes through in the show. While I found myself at times resonating both with Harlequin and with Il Dottore, who of course are both echoes of this kind of more shamanic clowning. Harlequin because heís very malleable and constantly changing from one shape to another, depending on circumstances ó a genius one minute, a fool the next. And also Il Dottore. He confounds everyone with his mastery of jargon, but he might be just as foolish as everyone else.

Q: Well, thatís appropriate these days as we witness the electioneering.

A: When I was trying to think of who the modern analog of these people are, especially when I thought of Il Dottore, I immediately thought of Donald Rumsfeld!

Q: That comedy tradition is about satire, but itís also a very broad kind of humor. Does that limit the ideas you want to get across or make them more universal?

A: Well, weíre definitely not doing straight commedia. If weíre taking from commedia, weíre taking in a very post-modern sense. Weíre taking what is useful to us, whatís interesting to us and mixing it with other things. There are autobiographical elements of Waltzing to War which certainly donít fit in with the commedia tradition. Masks have been dropped. Weíre taking more of a theatrical presentation of oral history.

Q: When youíre doing a poetry reading, are you sometimes frustrated that youíre not dramatizing your words as vividly as in performances like Waltzing to War?

A: The result of working with Cosmic Spelunker Theater is I have less of an inclination to read at poetry readings than I used to.

I like to combine the art forms. Sometimes I have movement-performance mime work that is without text, and I donít feel that Iím missing something when I havenít included words in those particular pieces.

It was really tricky to do a theatrical piece based on the Randall Jarrell poem, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Because in some ways thereís a danger of making it too intense, so that it becomes just gratuitous.

Q: In these anti-war performances, what feedback have you gotten from those who disagree with your politics?

A: I live in Massachusetts, so I donít get a lot of people complaining about the politics. I donít know Iíd say [the sketches are] particularly anti-war as they are about war. I try to ensure that the audience makes up their own minds on things. Obviously, I see Rumsfeld as someone worthy of lampooning, but again Iím sure there are elements of these pieces that donít always enamor me to some people who are anti-war activists, I think. I really tried to humanize the soldiers. And, of course, James does too, having been a soldier.

Waltzing to War will be performed at AS220 Sept. 4 at 6 pm. Admission is $6. Call (401) 831-9327.

Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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