It is no small undertaking to decide to adapt Charles Baudelaire’s seminal 19th century volume of poetry, Les fleurs du mal. Some may find its sheer length and poetic complexity daunting, but for the multidisciplinary artists of Theatre Oobleck, it was an inexhaustible well on which they drew for a seven-year-long performance series, Baudelaire in a Box, that ended earlier this month with Closed Casket, a marathon 12-hour long retrospective.
The traditional cantastoria format, a historically Italian style of performance in which a narrative song is performed accompanied by a series of relevant images, typically painted or drawn, was utilized here; the performances consisted of musicians at the front of the stage, and a wooden superstructure bearing hand-cranked scrolls drawn and operated by noted visual artist Dave Buchen at the rear. Less directly illustrative and more thematically responsive, the quietly kinetic imagery lent a subtle sense of continuity to a program that embraced a wide-ranging selection of musical styles. Everything from bluegrass, to latin-inflected jazz, to the operatic was utilized, though never arbitrarily. If one thing was made clear by the durational nature of the program, it was that the more than two dozen artists involved clearly shared a deep respect for the work of Charles Baudelaire. All decisions to exercise artistic license were clearly made in service to the work, always with an eye towards giving each poem the breathing room it asked for.
This unapologetic dedication to quality comes as no surprise when the roster of artists involved is considered. Members of well regarded Chicago bands Matchess, Bobby Conn, Expo 76, Tallulah, Mucca Pazza and Azita are all involved, as well as project founder Chris Schoen and producer Martha Bayne, each well known in their own right. Joining the regular members were former collaborators and guest artists from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and New York City, as well as a full company from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The lattermost having produced their own versions of several Baudelaire episodes, performed primarily in Spanish, and with a nearly theatrical approach rooted in flamboyant costuming and invented ritual.
The company behind Baudelaire, Theatre Oobleck, “an artistic collective dedicated to producing and performing original works of theater for the benefit of the Chicago community and beyond,” has been producing interdisciplinary performance programming for over 25 years. They distinguish themselves by producing all works without overseeing directors and abiding by a suggested donation policy (with a generous more-if-you’ve-got-it/free-if-you’re-broke addendum).