“F*ck reviews! F*ck reviewers! F*ck reviews!”
At one point towards the end of the Neo-Futurists’ newest mainstage, Empty Threats, creator Lily Mooney states that an item sent to her by an audience member represents a challenge in some ways and that she is willing to accept that challenge. Well, Lily, a line from your play, specifically the line I’ve quoted above, represents a challenge to me. I accept.
To what extent should artists shape their work towards the goal of getting good reviews? To what extent should each of us, in the quiet, everyday moments of our lives, shape our performance of self towards the goal of getting good reviews? In theory, the answer is not at all. Conventional wisdom and tacky inspirational Instagram posts tell us to forget everyone else’s opinions, to live as our true selves without fear of others’ judgement, and the lofty goal of Making Art seems to embrace this philosophy even more strongly. We’re supposed to make art for ourselves, without trying to pleasing others.
How impossible not to try to bend our personality to better suit a boss, a family member, a potential lover. How impossible not to hope, in producing a play, that the critics will rave about it, and how impossible not to let that hope seep into the rehearsal room.
Lily Mooney’s character in Empty Threats, a person from the “real world,” captures, tortures, and plans to kill fictional professor Victor. When asked why she’s doing it, she replies that not killing him would disappoint the audience and worse, get her bad reviews. Victor rails against this rationale, and the moment is funny—as so much of the play is funny, cleverly funny, pause-for-several-seconds-before-the-next-line funny. The extra irony of hearing this rant on press night gave the audience the sense of being in on a private joke, a moment of meta humor enjoyed between ourselves and Mooney. The play seems to embrace the anarchistic, bohemian philosophy of “f*ck reviews.” But. There I sat, in a second-row reserved seat, an invited reviewer.
The fact is that nothing in Empty Threats is simple. Not the relationship with criticism, not the relationship with the audience, not the relationship between the two characters. Mooney grabs elements of literature, philosophy, theatrical convention, and Neo-Futurist aesthetic and smashes them gleefully like pottery, leaving large, uneven shards of ideas where the audience can step on them. Indeed, she wants us to step on them and see what the bleeding does to us and to the play.
This play is bloody. It’s hilarious. It’s intense and bizarre and clever and thought-provoking. It makes you think with your gut and feel with your head. It’s the best-executed concept I’ve ever seen on the Neo-Futurists’ stage, and it’s also unpolished, unapologetically so, just as the set is unpolished, populated with incomplete ceiling tiles and beat-up tarps pulled down from the ceiling. It’s self-referential. It’s its own specific aesthetic, its own contained world. It’s our world, also. Empty Threats is smart. It’s quirky. It’s nothing you expect and more than you hope it will be. It’s how you find out what happened to all the missing red Skittles from the bowls in the lobby. It’s worth waiting in line for. It’s worth seeing twice.
The Neo-Futurists are the only Chicago theatre company I know that has never failed to surprise me. I hope this review surprised you, Lily Mooney. I loved your play, even though you never did murder Victor. I hope other critics loved it, too, but if not? F*ck them.
Location: 5153 N. Ashland Ave.
Dates: June 7 – July 14, 2018
Times: Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Ticket Prices: Thursdays Pay-What-You-Can, Fridays and Saturdays, $10-$25. Tickets and information are available at the Neo-Futurists website or 773.275.5255.
All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.