Preview: How To Be
Sawed in Half
Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2000
Joanna Settle, maverick and strong-minded artistic director
of the Thirteenth Tribe performance group, enjoys the gentle
art of disarming her questioners and critics.
Nonetheless, there’s something jarring about hearing
the guiding force behind a financially strapped off-Loop
theatre discussing how perversely pleasurable it can be
to create material for tiny audiences in big theatres.
“People should feel lonely,” Settle enthused in an interview last
week. “I want there to be empty seats. The place should feel like a porn
house at 10 o’clock on a Thursday morning.”
Settle, an acolyte of Joanne Akalaitis, is talking about
the venerable 900-seat mainstage of the Athenaeum Theatre,
a venue that has the slightly faded grandeur of a European
With financial help from a group called Flow Arts (the
main force behind the old Cafe Voltaire theatre space),
Thirteenth Tribe has rented the Athenaeum for its production
of “How to Be Sawed in Half,” a new play by
the evocatively named Hurt McDermott, a local playwright
and filmmaker. Opening night is Saturday.
The play revolves around a on-stage performance by a magician
named Prospero and his assistant, Calibana. With the audience
watching a piece of drama that aims to function simultaneously
on many different metatheatrical levels, the show starts
out as a slightly tacky magic show. But aesthetic frames
begin to deconstruct when long-suffering Calibana decides
to break out fro the degradation of assistanthood and take
over the show.
Pushed for an explanation of his aims here, McDermott says
his show “explores how much you can use art to make
up for what you have lived through in life.” The
playwright is a long-time admirer of Settle’s work
and says that he approached her to direct his project.
Hire Settle and she usually comes along with Thirteenth
For her part, Settle has long enjoyed doing site-specific
projects (that is, performances done in spaces that have
some connection to the themes of the work). So the chance
to direct McDermott’s piece gave her the rare opportunity
to do a show about theatre in a big old theatre.
“It’s very aggressive and not for kids,” says Settle of the
work. “There are themes of abuse, denial and transformation.”
Then again, you’ll also see people being sawed in
half, things emerging from hats and levitation. Settle
kept interrupting the interview to chase on of the rabbits
from the show that was bunking at her apartment.
“The show is only about an hour and 15 minutes,” Settle says. “But
by the end of that time, the actors are standing there dripping in sweat.”
“It’s really a very weird show,” says Rachel Sledd, a co-founder
of Thirteenth Tribe and the actress playing Calibana. “I’m not sure
if things spiral, weave or crash into each other.” Sledd will share the
stage with George A. Wilson, a veteran local actor. An appropriately tacky live
band will accompany the machinations.
In conception at least, the play seems rather like John
Osborne’s “The Entertainer,” in which
the late Laurence Olivier starred more than 40 years ago.
But there were no rabbits in that show.
“The magic expanded and just took over my play,” says McDermott,
whose recent feature “Serious Business” did well on the film-festival
circuit. “It was very strange.”