The New Prairie School @ Links Hall

2.5 out of 4 stars

Corey Smith’s intellectual and absorbing new performance art work The New Prairie School which premiered at Links Hall at the Constellation last weekend feels, despite a four year development process, like a first draft of a much larger work.  Incorporating many of the techniques of 1980’s performance art: layered and repeated pedestrian movement, talkative score, randomness of order, this 90 minute work asks many questions. Chief among them it seems: What does it mean to be or to want to be a Midwesterner?    

The work first attempts to define the term utilizing everything from topographical maps of the geography, to history, to personal family stories.  And it struggles to answer the questions it asks by layering dense concepts and visual imagery on top of each other like the layers of sediment in a river bed.  

The evening begins by introducing our explorers: lanky hipster ringleader Corey Smith, sincere moppet Claire Saxe, and ironic intellect Ethan T Parcell, as they overtalk their intros. They are striking performers, compelling individuals you must watch.

Next begins a section called the Knees: defined as junctures between two substantial structures.  In the program there is a list of 19 titles under each performer’s name: they will randomly draw bingo numbers to determine which will be presented.  There are also 10 titles for each performer that have not been written and will not be performed—making the program a piece of conceptual art itself.  There were not enough programs for the full house, and thus audience members had to share, a bit of audience participation that served to heighten the experience.  The most successful Knee for me was Claire Saxes’ Hey Ethan where she and Ethan competed telling stories of their grandfathers. Hey Ethan seems worthy of an evening itself.   There was a contrived convergence of Knees towards the end that led to the three explorers playing a rousing and funny tune.

There were many stunning moments: the theatre is completely darkened for a section taking the audience into a novel sensory experience.  There are the Disclaimers, a funny bit where we learn that much of what we have been told over the course of the evening is untrue and that they have conflated biographical information of Frank Lloyd Wright with Wilber Wright . There is a bit of technology as social commentary as the three performers enact a complicated choreography of stuffing IPod speakers into their mouths.  There was a kind of semiphore disco section with harmonicas that was strange and beautiful.  The ending is a recitation but not a culmination, which lead me to feel that this work is a beginning.

There was a section where the piece tried to take us to the prairie at sunrise.  Sonically we were there, but as it rolled out meditatively in words with Saxe and Parcell conscientiously Rock Paper Scissoring, it became an abstraction taking us out and away from the experience. Overall, Smith is not successful in bringing nature, the Midwest, indoors and yet I sensed that for all the performers, so much of what it is to be of a place has to do with the actual physical nature of the place: the lakes, the rivers, the tallgrass.  Because this piece is for the prefrontal cortex, layered with abstractions, and so much of nature is limbic and sensory, we could not find the place and respond.  We became more like analytical scientists sorting through data, trying to find patterns, connections and meanings. The work does not yet have a story to tell.

There is rich soil to continue to dig through in this New Prairie School.  There are many more stories to tell in the Knees.  This is clearly a work, and a subject matter to keep coming back to.

The New Prairie School was presented January 12 to 14 at Links Hall at Constellation, 3111 North Western Avenue in Chicago.   For more information go to