Cooperative Performance’s Allusion/Illusion is an intellectually exhilarating 45 minutes of experimental theatre. Like anything that’s truly experimental, it is many different things in many different ways. For 45 minutes the tiny, little improvised space in the Third Ward just down the street and around the corner from the Milwaukee Public Market becomes a fun existential playground cast in the emptiness of a vacant warehouse with vast expanses of plaster and Cream City brick.
On one level, Allusion/Illusion feels oddly like a video game. Emily Elliot and Caitlyn Nettesheim are enjoyably confrontational as a pair of abstract entities in conflict who are debating whether or not to reveal the artifice of reality to the audience. There are multiple levels that the audience is ushered through in the course of the show as Allusion and Illusion guide us through the central question of morality in reality versus perception. The conflict progresses as curtains are raised, each one revealing another performance at a different level. Each level ends in a kind of climax, building on the levels before it.
On another level, Allusion/Illusion is a simple intellectual funhouse. The show is introduced by a lovable blue fuzzy puppet named Little Blue who is brought to life by Billy Ray Olsen. Olsen delivers the character of Little Blue to the performance in a casually friendly tone. There's little done to separate puppet from the puppeteer. Olsen changes his voice very little for the character, appearing in plain view right behind him. Little Blue even makes reference to the guy standing behind him. It’s a really sharp introduction to the show. Much like everything else in the show he’s introducing, Little Blue can be taken for face value as a character...or as a puppet...or as an abstract symbol for something else entirely. It’s all so deeply open to interpretation.
On another level, Allusion/Illusion is a variety show. There’s drama. There’s music. Jo Kerner from the prog rock band Rocket Paloma sings and plays guitar beautifully amidst the strange abstraction of it all. There’s dance and drama and shadow puppetry. (Here the show is being playfully literal. We see Plato’s Allegory of the Cave rendered in actual shadow puppets on the cavernous wall of an empty warehouse.) There’s multimedia mutation as well. One of the better moments in the entire show has Kerner’s face as a visage of inner turmoil broadcast onto the body of Raja Zafar. It’s weird. It’s disjointed. And it’s all in the service of subjectivity in reality.
On another level still, Allusion/Illusion is an abstract existential fairytale. Emily Elliot is Allusion...a gritty, aggressive de-constructivist trying to guide the audience through artifice into something more real even though she knows that there isn’t anything beyond it. She’s a compelling nihilist in a tie and a black leather jacket. She’s contrasted against Caitlyn Nettesheim as Illusion...the gracious hostess who wants us all to be happy in the world that’s been constructed for us. I love the idea that two of the most powerful forces in the universe are present onstage as a couple of young women. On an aesthetic level this makes a lot of sense to me. The script makes pretty extensive reference to the Wachowskis’ Matrix movies, but so much of the dreamlike fairytale nature of the show reminds me of Gaiman’s Sandman right down to powerful forces taking the form of young women. We don’t have the pleasure of the company of a Goth girl death or a mismatched, pleasantly scattered Delirium, but it’s endlessly cool that Nettesheim and Elliot are opposing Order and Chaos-like forces in the title roles of Allusion and Illusion.
One of most fascinating moments in the narrative a brief scene where the audience is led out of the space and into the cold reality of the Third Ward at night. Traffic is going by in the distance. There are the sounds of a weekend just south of downtown in late winter. There’s a whole world out there. But how real is it? As tired as the overall premise is, there’s still a phenomenal amount of electricity in the theatre calling attention to its own reflection. It’s powerful stuff. It’s also playful and bizarre. It’s rare when something this abstract and philosophical dives into view in local theatre. It's a show that needs to be seen.
Cooperative Performance’s Allusion/Illusion runs through Feb. 23 at a storefront space in Historic Third Ward on 329 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.