THOSE WHO WALKED THE RED carpet at the Academy Awards in February had nothing on folks who attended a fundraiser for the Redmoon Theater in Chicago two evenings earlier. Guests strolled through a huge parking lot down a rented red carpet, flanked by trash-can bonfires and leading to a 5,000 sq.ft. space. Inside, they dodged walking tables, secret agents, an oversized hamster, and oncoming bikes, some with screens attached for shadow puppet shows, others with canopies of wine glasses. And when they thought the magic and mayhem were over, the party began.
Outdoor fires brought summer campfires to mind, but original and delicious dishes, desserts to die for, and an open bar had nothing in common with roasted marshmallows. With music still playing and coffee brewing, actors in outrageous costumes summoned guests back to the outdoor lot to watch the hamster, associate artistic director Frank Maugeri in costume, climb into a large hamster wheel. As he danced inside, fire erupted around the wheel, swirling and crackling and changing color.
Redmoon started as a puppet theatre and grew to use masks, ingenious mechanical objects, and an occasional script. Its stated mission is to create “theatrical spectacles that transform streets, stages, and architectural landmarks into places of public celebration utilizing an original language capable of speaking across cultural, ethnic, and generational boundaries.”
But it has become much more than that. Artistic director Jim Lasko says Redmoon is an image and sound-based event theatre company. Most notably, it does private and corporate events, with varying degrees of customization to accommodate the space and the occasion. “The more customized it is, the more fun it is,” says Lasko.
“Events have to be practical — you have to serve this food or that beverage or move people to that place,” Lasko adds, noting that the absence of narrative permits them to be wildly whimsical. “When you're working on a text, you ask if the objects serve the text. For events, you always have to go back to what the party needs,” Lasko says. “Can we do something with this object that makes it more functional?”
Sometimes Redmoon organizes an entire event for a client; sometimes, a client rents a particular machine or costume. For the annual benefit, “we tried to pull out all the stops and treat people to a real vision of the kind of theatre we make,” Lasko says.
Once, when Redmoon needed a buffet service, a photo of a woman in a large hoop skirt inspired artists to put a woman at the center of an 8ft. table, which is on wheels to make walking in it easy. At most parties, the table lady wears a “skirt” of food. For the fundraiser, auction items went on the skirt. Table ladies hold fans made from silverware. It's not unusual for Redmoon artists to create imaginative objects out of everyday things; the goal is not to create an illusion of reality but to show things as they are and to explore their possibilities.
Theatrical food service is one of the company's trademarks. “We developed things that we can use in food service that relish in the human imagination and make people feel like celebrating,” says Lasko. The Vino machine, created by kinetic sculptor Christopher Furman, features a canopy of wine glasses hooked to the drive train of a tricycle, with an internal speaker to provide creepy music as it travels. Party goers take a glass from the canopy, and the device pours wine into it at the touch of a lever.
Briefcases, carried by men in trench coats, opened to reveal flasks of green soup and other strange appetizers. Costume designer Alison Heryer says when actors improvised with briefcases and decided to play secret agents, she started deconstructing trench coats. “I experimented with the materials,” she says, explaining that she took ten coats apart, flipped them around, and played. What if I put arms on backwards? What if I cut this from one coat and put it on another?”
William Tellman, who designed the hamster wheel that was originally used for a Redmoon event at the Geary Band Shell in Millennium Park, has been working on an espresso cart from the Model-T steam engine era. “The character behind the wheel is a proper Englishman who has gotten caught up in this world of invention and caffeine,” Tellman says. His cart will integrate modern technology with old world charm, featuring copper water reservoirs, a gas espresso maker, waste reservoirs, and refrigeration for milk.
At a party with a movie theme, a film crew videotaped guests and projected footage onto large screens. Costume designer Tatjana Radisic created backstage characters, two of them defined by big funny breasts — “a wardrobe assistant with pin cushion boobs and a makeup artist with fruit boobs (edible) and brushes on his back, so he's ready if you need to touch up your makeup.”
Not surprisingly, the reviews from event attendees have been glowing. “Redmoon's party characters are original, cutting edge ways to marry theatre with functionality. They can enhance any atmosphere,” notes one attendee, Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-IL). “Redmoon made my husband's 60th birthday party a delight for all of our guests. The performers were fantastical and the food service was playful and imaginative,” Margo Blair says.
Simultaneously elegant and outrageous, full of ingenious surprises and wild spectacle, Redmoon events grow from collaborations between designers — sculptors, painters, installation artists, photographers, sometimes even traditional theatre designers, often working together on a given project. Many of the artists involved have multiple talents. Often Lasko throws out an idea and collaborators take it from there.
Maggie Goddard, a freelance artist and Redmoon's technical director, pulls together what assorted artists bring to each project, consulting and brainstorming with them as she works. Goddard once taught prop making at CalArts and fine arts at Chicago's Art Institute, and she juggled fire with the circus and the opera in Chicago. Her background in rigging, conceptual art, and props serve her well here. “No problem is the same twice,” she says. “That keeps it interesting.”
Lasko, who dropped out of an interdisciplinary theatre and drama Ph.D. program at Northwestern, draws from his knowledge of theatre. Integrating elements of Brecht, the futurists, the constructivists and medieval pageantry, he says, “You have to understand basic theatre in order to move away from it.”
Mark Kaufman, president of CTM productions, says when CTM decided to use Redmoon for a Ball Centennial Celebration, they were in search of something theatrical that would ensure that the Centennial would be remembered. “I felt that Redmoon would bring creative energies that would transform the workplace and Gardens at Ball into an atmosphere of excitement… Redmoon is able to take a ‘location’ and transform it into a performance space that incorporates every aspect of the location: physical elements become set pieces, audience members become active participants, and the atmosphere becomes a part of the performance. This is truly unique, especially when using a performance for a corporate event,” he says.
Redmoon events have themes, and the fundraiser's was “Fire and Ice.” Shop manager Laura Miracle, who coordinates the volunteers and interns and contributes to the layout and event flow, says they wanted a cool palette at the start, drawing on the colorlessness of late winter. “When you get to the party, it's cold and icy,” she says of the décor, “but by the end of the night, we moved to candlelight and fire.”
Annual Halloween spectacles and winter pageants are among the many Redmoon projects designed to involve the Chicago community. Matt Binns, who works with woods, metals, and plastics, built a machine to raise the sun for the 2000 winter pageant. Binns says the stainless steel “Sunrayser 2000,” with flashing lights and exploding side panels that “spills its guts,” contrasted with the “earthy, fantastic set.” Each week, “a different horde of children who play the smaller parts” supplements the cast of some 14 regulars. While actors perform, they also train the next groups of children.
With Geoff Wood and Erik Newman, Binns also built a 20ft. boat for Sink, Sink Sunk, a loosely constructed tale performed near Chicago's China Town on a river; the lead boat, carrying a flaming funeral pyre, led eight paddle boats carrying dreamlike lanterns through the water as a live band played. The show started at dusk; passersby watched Redmoon rehearse, and over 12,000 spectators arrived over four days.
Guests who paid hundreds to attend the fundraiser (some bid much more at a silent auction) seemed thoroughly pleased. And so did the artists who made it happen. “Redmoon reaches out to a lot of artists with different aesthetics,” Furman notes, and it provides “a rich playground for them.” Perhaps it is that playful collaboration between different sensibilities that makes the unexpected inevitable at Redmoon events.
Davi Napoleon is a writer and theatre historian. Visit: www.geocities.com/davinapoleon/journalism.html.