In late 2016, all the skeletons in the Neo-Futurists’ closet were dragged out into the open, as a schism between the company and its founder resulted in the end of the company’s long-running hit Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. If that abrupt break came as a surprise to Chicago theatergoers, imagine the shock to the system it must’ve been for the ensemble members themselves.
The surrealist troupe’s latest production, A Story Told in Seven Fights, is ensemble member Trevor Dawkins’ attempt to process that nasty break-up in true Neo-Futurists fashion: outside of the box and without much of a roadmap. Of course, this 90-minute production directed by Tony Santiago is anything but unstructured, despite the impression it gives. Every twist and turn, though played as if it’s improvised and spur-of-the-moment, is rehearsed to perfection, as it needs to be when you’re throwing punches and tossing your fellow cast members around the stage.
There’s no real plot to Seven Fights, per se, but Dawkins is clear from the beginning that he’s got some shit to work out, shit that dates back to that rift the company endured two years ago. By way of narrative vehicle, we follow the story of Arthur Cravan, a poet and philosopher in the early 20th century who ushered in the birth of Dadaism and Surrealism. The history lesson also includes his contemporaries Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton and boxing champion Jack Johnson, who Cravan fought in an exposition match that he publicized to raise money for himself.
It’s an interesting jumping-off point for an angry, energized show that at times leans a bit too far into self-indulgence, feeling a bit like a group of college kids who just discovered these philosophical movements and don’t have more to say about them than parroting what they’ve read. But just as quickly, it delivers a poignant, surreal moment of its own, often when it steps out of the “plot” and into a more reflective space. In one key sequence, an actor draws a line in chalk on the stage and declares that upstage, they’re in character, downstage, it’s real life. It’s on the downstage side of that line that we glimpse that it’s not just Dawkins processing the seismic shift of the organization, struggling to find meaning and identity as a new iteration of itself.
The cast is young and diverse and beautiful, and even if they’re saddled with cliched moments here and there, they give it their all. The show actually does include the seven fights of its title, and the ensemble’s commitment to these scenes sees them breaking an actual sweat. Among the violence and grief, there are some genuinely funny moments, as the show is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously. By the end, they may not have succeeded in finding answers to the confusion of their new reality, but they’ve certainly vented enough of the pent-up angst to start what feels like a new—and worthy—chapter.
A Story Told in Seven Fights is on now through April 7 at Neo-Futurists, located at Ashland & Foster on the north side. More information and tickets here.