Dictator Light

Friday, December 5, 1997
Section: Friday
Column: Music, After hours
By Achy Obejas

Bryn Magnus is talking movies.

“I just saw `Flubber’ and it was very disappointing,” says Magnus. “Robin Williams was sleepwalking in that movie. Now `Boogie Nights,’ I really liked that, I really found it compelling.”

Best known for a hyper-lush theatrical language and a tendency to play with blood onstage (witness “Avalanche Ranch” and the appropriately named “Illustrious Bloodspill”), Magnus has anew play, “Small Together,” running at the Curious Theater Branch. Typically, it’s a dense, darkly funny family drama with cinematic flashes.

“You could call `Small Together’ a chamber farce,” says Magnus.

And he just finished his first film, a script he helped write with director Eric Wright called “Our Father.”

“I’m working on different film projects, “he says. “Hopefully more of them will come through.”

Although Magnus is best known for his theatrical works, it’s really movies that get him. He watches about four or five a week, on the big and small screens, just for fun.

“I see as many studio movies as I can,” he says, “and as many classics.”

So imagine how delighted he was when Peter Taub, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s performing arts director, approached him to do a performance in conjunction with the museum’s “Hall of Mirrors,” an exhibition about the interplay of film and the arts.

Magnus’ piece, titled “Dictator Light,” opened Thursday at the MCA and runs four nights through Sunday.

“I was interested in abstracting the elements of film: sound, light, action,” Magnus says. “I wanted to create sound scapes that were instantly recognizable as romance, war, violence and action. So I thought of Michael (Zerang) right away, because I’d always wanted to work with him.’

Zerang is one of the city’s best-known musicians, a percussionist with avant-garde jazz ensembles and a composer of such haunting theatrical works as Redmoon’s “Frankenstein” and “Frankie and Johnny.”

At a recent rehearsal, Zerang and Magnus gathered four actors, put them up on stage with their backs to the audience and had them completely recreate a film noir scene using only their voices and assorted mouth noises. Between the four of them, they had macho dudes walking in puddles, opening and closing car doors, turning ignitions, dialing the phone and listening to faraway voices. It was absolutely mesmerizing.

“In terms of writing for this piece, it’s musical writing, fanciful, lyrical — that’s what I love about film writing, how it forces me to think in a different way, to really tone down my hyperactive language jones,” says Magnus. ” ‘Dictator Light’ is very musical, very performance, a lot like a collage.”

“Dictator Light” begins with a rhythmic play on lights, then goes immediately into the Zerang-built sound scapes. The action takes place when the voices turn out to be ushers who discover Magnus sneaking a second movie at the cineplex.

“They decide to turn me into a movie star and change my name to Chad Chadnus,” says Magnus, who takes the central role of the star struck movie fan (not coincidentally named Bryn Magnus).

The dialogue is snappy 1940s repartee, and the story more suggested than acted.

“Images from movies have become icons in our subconscious; we can’t forget them,” says Magnus. “That’s where the gore comes from, at least for me. It’s so been impressed in my mind, I can’t stop seeing it.”

But “Dictator Light” is Magnus-lite, its critique of Hollywood couched in the writer’s acknowledgement of his own contradictory enjoyment of Hollywood films and of his own work’s vulnerability to the same easy criticisms.

“I’m totally fascinated by all the money spent in Hollywood to recreate gore,” he says. “Millions are spent to make death look real but they can’t make a simple kiss look real. We found the same is true for us — the violence and horror were completely easy, everybody was able to embody that. The stuff about romance was a lot harder to make real. How do you keep love from being sappy or saccharine on film? What is adult romantic love? What does it look like, performed?”

“Dictator Light” touches on that but angles more at a larger critique of moviemaking.

“One of the reasons the ushers are able to turn my character into a movie star is because of his quality of playing dumb, pretending he doesn’t understand,” says Magnus.

The performance is followed by a different film each night, a series called “Something for Nothing”: 1952’s Bette Davis vehicle, “The Star”; Jack Palance’s “The Big Knife”; the Robert Altman/TimRobbins satire “The Player”; and the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink.”

Other recent Magnus screenings?

“Telling Lies in America” — “If you’re interested in movies, you’ve gotta examine Joe Eszterhas’ career. And this is a classic Eszterhasian fantasy about sex and power,” says Magnus.

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”– “The tone was nice and odd, and I loved the fact that Lady Chablis was allowed to steal every scene. But there’s something implausible about John Cusack’s character being enthralled by all that,” says Magnus. “And I was offended by the voodoo woman, she was totally absurd.”

“Starship Troopers” — “That movie really scared me, it was so fascist,” he says, “I mean, intergalactic fascism.”

the facts

9 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday: “Dictator Light” by Bryn Magnus, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220E. Chicago Ave. $12/$9 for MCA members. Call 312-397-4010. The MCA is wheelchair accessible.

PHOTO: Bryn Magnus, Jenny Magnus and Dana Wise (from left) in “Dictator Light,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art through Sunday.

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