Pop Waits, the title of the new show by Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, combines the names of two iconic musicians: Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. The idea of throwing them together into one work of theater might seem a bit odd, but the Neo-Futurists’ shows are always a bit odd. And in many ways, Pop Waits is the sort of show that this group is known for: a hodgepodge that mashes together wildly different subjects and styles of performance, along with a high level of self-awareness and self-reference. And staying true to the principles of the Neo-Futurists, Pop Waits features performers playing themselves, directly addressing the audience as the people they actually are, as opposed to fictional characters.
The co-creators and co-stars of this show are Malic White and Molly Brennan, who explore the way they use music as a tool for coping with depression and feeling affirmation. White’s touchstone is the music of Iggy Pop — performed during the play with a rock band — while Brennan is inspired by the songs of Tom Waits.
The Neo-Futurists ran into a hitch with their plans just a few days before opening night, however. As the program explains — and as the performers themselves explained during the show — they failed to get permission from Waits to use his songs. Their request apparently didn’t get through to Waits or Waits’ management in time. So they ended up using a few songs that Brennan herself wrote in the style of Waits, alongside the actual Iggy Pop tunes. That makes for a somewhat awkward mismatch, although it actually makes the music more personal and relevant to Brennan’s autobiographical performance. (And rather than sounding bitter about the situation, the Neo-Futurists encouraged audience members to buy Waits’ music.)
The musical performances are lively — with White diving into the role of crowd-surfing punk rocker and Brennan reveling in gravelly voiced singing. The show starts off with a fun participatory bit involving the audience helping the performers to write a new song. And it’s touching to hear White and Brennan tell the story of how they became romantic partners. It all feels cobbled together, like a rough draft, however. (For better or worse, this is true of many shows by the Neo-Futurists, who are most famous for their ever-changing collection of micro-plays, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.)
But then something remarkable happens halfway through Pop Waits: Brennan bravely reveals a painful ailment she has been fighting and the emotional toll it takes on her. Considering that she is renowned for her work on Chicago stages as an avant-garde clown, it was incredible to hear her talk about the difficulties she faces every day.
Pop Waits may not (yet) be a fully realized show, but as a mixture of rock music, clowning and real-life confession, it’s memorable and eye-opening. Watching it on opening night last week, it struck me as the sort of bold and strange show that keeps Chicago’s theater scene so exciting.
Pop Waits continues through March 12 at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago. See neofuturists.org for details.