Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Photo (l-r): Jared Fernley and Lily Mooney. Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.
By Bec Willett
The Neo-Futurists’ EMPTY THREATS is not common or expected or simple. My mind keeps circling a moment from the beginning of the show, determined not to allow me the words necessary to articulate the whole of this experience. The performers discuss what makes an artwork special – the je nes sais quoi, the spark, passionately articulating that one must experience the whole of an artwork (in this case a novel) to understand it. That it is this private struggle to grapple with the whole and the spark it conveys that makes it worthwhile, that makes it art. EMPTY THREATS is not easy to describe or define, but it is most definitely art and most definitely worthwhile.
Written and performed by Neo-Futurists ensemble member Lily Mooney (as herself), joined on stage by Jared Fernley (Professor Victor), EMPTY THREATS is a meta-theatrical piece that — along with other philosophical questions — asks, “What is truth?” While the plot moves forward with a great deal of action, the events can’t be detailed without revealing and thus perhaps changing your experience. So, in place of details, allow a description of style and feeling: Imagine watching a performance created by Tina Fey as Dario Fo who took up sketch comedy and literature while writing ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST. I realize that sounds like a lot (and it is) but Mooney is not only an expert at her craft, she’s also empathetic, never leaving you adrift or without an ‘in’. Yes, there’s an intellectualism here bound to attract an ironically bespectacled audience, but there’s also a bevy of self-referential jokes and slapstick which, in addition to Mooney’s awareness, make it accessible for many.
EMPTY THREATS’ deliberately unpolished design elements offer a specific and budget-friendly aesthetic that suits the style of the show and the company, sending us the message that what’s important to them are the people, the ideas, and the message. It’s a strength obvious in the performances and direction. Albeit self-inflicted, Mooney has the difficulty of walking the line between acting in multiple worlds of the play at once – at times focused on the scene with Victor, at times the audience, and at times both at once. While there were moments where Mooney still seems to be fine-tuning these, the flow and specificity of the direction and performance in negotiating this line are impressive. Playing opposite her, Fernley has a slightly easier job with his script providing more clarity. His characterization and moment-to-moment work is dynamic, engaging and ever-present. With such a density of layers, the ease of both performances highlights the skill of all involved.
During my struggle to grapple with EMPTY THREATS I re-read Mooney’s note in the front of the program. It’s indicative of who she is: intelligent, empathetic, questioning. Before signing off, she says “I hope this show at some point does a real thing for you.” Her words are the clearest articulation of what this complex experience is for me: “a real thing”. You can’t ask for much more than that.
EMPTY THREATS runs through July 14th. For more information visit neofuturists.org.