Chicago Theater Review: TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND (The Neo-Futurarists)

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by Tony Frankel on February 22, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The Occupy Wall Street movement would do well to take a tip from the longest running show in Chicago, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (TML). The event may take place every week indoors at the Neo-Futurarium — above a funeral home in the Andersonville neighborhood — but it is pure street theater, entertaining and provocative.

Simply, the goal is to present 30 plays in 60 minutes. Founded by Greg Allen, who still participates in the show, TML’s plays (not sketches) are written by the individual performers, perfected by the ensemble — who call themselves the Neo-Futurists — and then directed and performed by this same cooperative (there were seven members the night I attended).

Hanging above the thrust stage on a clothesline are 8×11 sheets of paper numbered 1 through 30. A timer is set for one hour and the audience starts yelling out numbers. An ensemble member jumps up and announces the name of the play listed on the back of the paper. Since there is a time constraint, part of the fun is watching the actors scurry about, screaming for a prop and running into place (a few times, they had to remind each other about who sets up what).

No doubt, the show is so fast-paced that it would be ridiculous to remember all of the plays. With titles such as “Banana: Death Date 2021,” “Oops,” “but what about the casually sexy gnome, mutilated robot bear, and me?” and “Driving in Ireland!” the plays themselves are a ragbag of topics and sensibilities. They range from serious to silly to insightful. Some are amusing, some are thought-provoking, a few are bewildering, but they are all immensely personal. The plays change every week — some stay, some go. It is this ever-changing roster which has contributed to the longevity of the show.

No one is trying to impress. No one is trying to be funny. No one is trying to showcase themselves. It is organized chaos where thoughts and ideas are hurled at you in rapid succession. Like a drug, the show will leave you either breathless, numb, energized, inspired or a combination thereof. Those seeking a particular experience, namely nothing but silly hijinks a la Second City, may feel let down, but the largely youthful audience in attendance was rapt and enthusiastic, even if a play or two laid an egg.

The dramatic, cheeky and political pieces reminded me of what Occupy Wall Street lacks. Just the day before TML, I saw demonstrators camped out in Chicago’s financial district and thought, “How boring.” What kind of media attention were they trying to attract and, most important, what exactly did they want? Any activist of yore, from the Boston Tea Party “Indians” to ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) knew that a grumbling encampment would not create social change; only daring feats of street theater would attract the attention of both populace and government.

In 1773, a group of angry colonists, furious over “taxation without representation,” responded with unbridled passion when Samuel Adams announced: “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.” In just three hours, a small band of colonists tossed 342 chests of tea into Boston harbor, setting into motion the creation of the First Continental Congress, a Declaration and a Revolution.

In 1987, ACT UP took their list of seven specific demands and organized a massive AIDS demonstration on Wall Street. “No more business as usual,” they exclaimed as they effectively shut down the financial center of the United States, utilizing street theatre that included a “Die-In” and a funeral procession. In later protests, ACT UP’s well-rehearsed street theater created a media frenzy which forced the hands of both Wall Street (the price of the life-saving medication AZT was lowered) and the FDA (which altered the way drug-testing was conducted).

It’s a shame that American theater is rarely used to goad and enflame social and political change, especially in the streets. Right across town from the financial district of Chicago, the Neo-Futurists (who also create “theme” shows) have a perfect design for social transformation and revolution. Had the leaders of Occupy Wall Street taken their manifesto and hired Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind to help plan a 60-minute play that represented 30 disparate voices with a unified vision, it may have ignited a media firecracker. Instead, the movement is fizzling out.

The process of seeing TML is in itself democratic and thumbs its nose toward capitalism. Knowing that no reservations are accepted, it was still shocking to round a corner and see a generous queue of people already lined up one hour before the show. After entering the building, you walk down a hall of rad-art portraits of U.S. Presidents, and move into a room — which is referred to as a lobby — where two lines form to pay for the show. For those of you, like me, who want a front row seat, you have to love that you are allowed to wriggle your way through the crowd to the front of the line in the lobby.

Those in the best seats are most likely to participate — maybe you will get splashed with water, be asked invasive personal questions or get pulled on stage to dance. On the night we saw the show, an audience member was escorted from the theater by the cast while we sat in expectancy and silence (I never did find out what they did to that guy).

Hopefully soon, a group of bright, articulate lads and lasses will present in the streets of America an entertainment called Too Much Greed Makes the Country Go Broke.

Neo-Futurists photos by Andrew Collings Photography, Inc.

[Editor’s Note: Neo-Futurist founder Greg Allen pulled the rights to the long-running signature show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which closed on December 31, 2016 (but still appears at other locations). The Neos have regrouped with a new exploration of two-minute plays and a new title, The Infinite Wrench, a name derived from onetime futurist poet Mina Loy’s Feminist Manifesto.]

The Infinite Wrench
The Neo-Futurists, 5153 N. Ashland Ave (at Foster)
open run
for this and more Neo-Futurist events, call 773.878.4557 visit The Neos

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tee B. February 23, 2012 at 8:31 am

Saw my first TMLMTBGB in ’90 or ’91 … back then it cost just the roll of a six-sided die ($1 – $6), and it happened at the Live Bait Theater on Clark (which was, I believe, their second location). I’m always happy to see they’re still at it and keeping it fresh. I still try to catch the show whenever I’m in Chicago (which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like), because as they say, if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it once!


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