Jenny Magnus and her tribe, the Curious Theatre Branch, have been doing their own deeply personal thing for some 25 years now — in large theaters and small — sans regard for external trends or rewards. These days, they're even working with their younger relatives, who show up among the 16 actors appearing in "Still in Play: A Performance of Getting Ready," the culmination of a Magnus residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
For those of us who've watched these singular Chicago artists for many years, the sight of a stage filled with at least three different generations of Curious-related performance artists is, frankly, moving. Bodies have changed, lives have morphed, communities have fractured and been restored. Beau O'Reilly, Magnus' best-known collaborator, now comes with a wild shock of hair and an appearance somewhere between Billy Connolly and Colonel Sanders. He is grand, weird and unbowed.
There always has been more than a touch of the Samuel Beckett about Magnus, a formidable writer and an enthusiastic musician. (The Curious tribe has spawned various eclectic bands, including Maestro Subgum and the one in this show, the Crooked Mouth Band.) And, in its best moments, "Still in Play" is a bittersweet celebration of, well, still being in play. Still being crazy after all these years, you might say. Still crazy for no money.
The setup this weekend at the MCA is that we're watching a group of actors warm up during the last 60 minutes before a performance. We know this from a stage manager, who keeps walking through and saying, "30 minutes, everyone," and so on. This is a good defense for the essentially chaotic visuals in director Stefan Brun's production: the clumps of people wandering around and stretching; the sections where people with their backs to the audience say things you can't hear properly; the strange placement of the band at the very rear of the stage where they can't engage their audience effectively. But you're still watching a fake rehearsal, and, absent some very fresh take, rehearsals are more interesting for the performer than an audience.
One could deal more easily if there were any credible sense of an actual performance about to take place in this space, once everyone is ready. But that just doesn't track. You don't get any feeling of the mounting backstage tension, the preparation of a text of any kind, or any contextual implication of an impending show. (What? Where? For whom?)
But those are the kinds of questions that Curious has never much liked answering. Specifics are absent. The self-examination only goes so far. What you get here is a loose meditation on why this company has kept performing and presenting despite challenges that would have felled the rest of us. And that means you have to find these people inherently interesting to get much from the show. (I do, and I found it intriguing, but beware.)
In the best moments, the Magnus character muses on what it's like to go back to your younger, idealistic, performing self and feeling "like a visitor to it," having settled for "humbler but more durable satisfactions."
Not these guys. They are durable within themselves.
When: Through Saturday
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $28 at 312-397-4010 or mcachicago.org