Curchack returns to the roost

Pub date July 29, 1987
WriterMisha Berson

For nine years experimental performance artist Fred Curchack lived in Sebastapol and toiled away just above the obscurity line. As a part-time drama instructor at Sonoma State University he was known for creating daringly original student productions. Bay Area reviewers celebrated him as a theatrical sorcerer whose solo shows — Kathakali Hamlet, Invocation, Stuff as Dreams Are Made On — were magical hybrids of Shakespeare and South Indian dance, Balinese shadowplay and vaudeville ventriloquism, puppetry and poetics. And local audiences could catch him his act at fringy venues like San Francisco’s Intersection and Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theatre — though he was never what you’d call boffo at the box office.

During the last year, however, the 39-year-old Curchack has hit it big on the international festival circuit, and accepted an out-of-town job offer he couldn’t refuse. As a tenured professor of Art and New Performance at the University of Texas in Dallas, he now has a measure of financial security and plenty of off-time to tour his work throughout the U.S. and Europe. Ironically, his new status has allowed him to return to San Francisco this summer for a Victoria Theatre run of The Inquest for Freddy Chickan, a recent piece described by Curchack as a “sci-fi/horror/romance mystery/musical comedy.”

Though he was doing his innovative thing here for years, the increased interest in Curchack has a lot to do with the enthusiastic reception he has received in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Berlin, Germany. Curchack’s break-through show was Stuff as Dreams Are Made On, a spectacular one-man interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which he premiered here in 1984 and has been touring extensively ever since. In Dreams he plays all the major characters from The Tempest while creating dazzling low-budget effects with masks, a flashlight and a cigarette lighter, among other items. And he frequently breaks away from the text to talk candidly to the audience about the perilous, schizoid nature of the actor’s art, a feat one reviewer likened to “a show-down between Shakespeare and Artaud.”

Freddy Chickan is a departure from Curchack’s usual mode of “deconstructing” existing texts by Shakespeare, William Blake, Eugene O’Neill and other writers. His original script probes the darker corners of pop-culture by investigating the sinister disappearance of a comedian named Freddy Chickan. In a further attempt to narrow the gap between viewer and actor, Curchack addresses his audience as if they were the murder suspects. The show was inspired, in part, by a scientific analogy. “I was reading The Black Hole: The End of the Universe, a very rhapsodic theoretical physics book that postulates what would happen if we were all sucked into a black hole,” Curchack told the Bay Guardian in a recent conversation. “One of the descriptions of a black hole is that it’s a star that has burned out and used up all its material. It collapses inward at the speed of light, sucking up everything in sight. For me this has something to do with the way a performer sucks up all the attention of the audience.”

With a technique he calls “multiphasic ventriloquism,” Curchack again transforms himself into numerous characters: a slow-witted detective, a Hollywood producer, a female German-Japanese performance artist, a pushy agent and the elusive Freddy. He also pours on the special effects: “light stunts, shadow projections, masks — my usual banquet of theatrical shenanigans.”

But Freddy also poses some exciting new acting challenges for Curchack. For one thing, it marks the first time he has impersonated a woman onstage. “There’s a big taboo there and I had never gotten down with it,” he says. “It’s an incredibly liberating experience to play a woman. I resisted it at first, but now I want to do it more.”

He also involves the audience more intimately than before by urging them to answer some tough philosophical questions. He asked Dallas viewers whether they felt powerless or powerful at the prospect of nuclear obliteration. When someone yelled, “Powerful!” he responded, “Oh, Dallas! I love you! What a can-do city!”

For Curchack, such exchanges are high points. “I’ve always talked to the audience, but it’s a very tenuous and dangerous thing to ask them to talk back. They’ve paid their money and they want to sit and listen. I don’t confront them for sensational purposes at all, or to attract attention to myself. It’s done in the tradition of the jester, the buffoon, in order to get beyond acceptable, civilized limits and awaken a kind of questioning of who we really are. Artistically, politically and perhaps spiritually our culture is at a moment of crisis. If individuals don’t take tremendous responsibility we face the end of the world, just for starters.”

The confrontational style of Freddy has alienated some viewers. Curchack recalls that when he performed the piece at the Theatre of Nations Festival in Baltimore last year several fellow actors found it “so dark and demonic that they walked out.” A German critic who saw it at the National Academy of Art in Berlin also admitted to mixed feelings: “He told me that during the first half he was wondering how the guy who made Stuff as Dreams Are Made On could do anything so shitty. By the end he thought it was the most exciting piece he’d seen that year.”

With all his onstage soul-baring, it’s no surprise to Curchack when people call his work self-indulgent. “I am self-indulgent, to the max!” he crows with pleasure. “I give my self license to indulge in every aspect of myself. I don’t need a defense as long as such cosmic narcissism can be of value to all the other wonderful narcissists sitting in the auditorium. I want to reach into those places which are really frightening in their luminous and dark aspects.”

Curchack is eager to find out how Bay Area theatergoers will respond to Freddy. “In other places even little children have been howling at it,” he contends. “Though it has a very serious and dense level of inquiry it’s actually intended to be quite accessible.”

After the three-week Victoria Theatre run, Curchack heads back to Dallas to a schedule crammed with intruiging projects. In the fall he’ll embark on a month-long performance tour of Norway, Poland and Bulgaria. Next year he’ll be directing an experimental production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the big-budget Dallas Theatre Center. He’s excited about teaching in the new multi-disciplinary arts graduate program at the University of Texas, and talks about bringing in “some outrageous San Francisco theater people like John O’Keefe to infiltrate academia.”

The fact that he has become a lot better paid and better known since leaving the Bay Area bemuses Curchack, but he seems to take the paradox in stride. “This is still home,” he declares. “That’s what my wife and I said when we pulled into town: “We’re home.’ It’s funny that there’s ten times as much interest in my work here now than when I actually lived here. But maybe that’s just the way things go. If you want a place to become home maybe you should move away.”*