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“Inside the giant frame of the Athenaeum’s traditional proscenium stage, Settle and her collaborators will explore the beauty and tenderness of comedy, magic and failure.”
- Chicago Tribune
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Preview: How To Be Sawed in Half
Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2000

Joanna Settle, maverick and strong-minded artistic director of the Thirteenth Tribe performance group, enjoys the gentle art of disarming her questioners and critics.

Nonetheless, there’s something jarring about hearing the guiding force behind a financially strapped off-Loop theatre discussing how perversely pleasurable it can be to create material for tiny audiences in big theatres.

“People should feel lonely,” Settle enthused in an interview last week. “I want there to be empty seats. The place should feel like a porn house at 10 o’clock on a Thursday morning.”

Settle, an acolyte of Joanne Akalaitis, is talking about the venerable 900-seat mainstage of the Athenaeum Theatre, a venue that has the slightly faded grandeur of a European opera house.

With financial help from a group called Flow Arts (the main force behind the old Cafe Voltaire theatre space), Thirteenth Tribe has rented the Athenaeum for its production of “How to Be Sawed in Half,” a new play by the evocatively named Hurt McDermott, a local playwright and filmmaker. Opening night is Saturday.

The play revolves around a on-stage performance by a magician named Prospero and his assistant, Calibana. With the audience watching a piece of drama that aims to function simultaneously on many different metatheatrical levels, the show starts out as a slightly tacky magic show. But aesthetic frames begin to deconstruct when long-suffering Calibana decides to break out fro the degradation of assistanthood and take over the show.

Pushed for an explanation of his aims here, McDermott says his show “explores how much you can use art to make up for what you have lived through in life.” The playwright is a long-time admirer of Settle’s work and says that he approached her to direct his project. Hire Settle and she usually comes along with Thirteenth Tribe.

For her part, Settle has long enjoyed doing site-specific projects (that is, performances done in spaces that have some connection to the themes of the work). So the chance to direct McDermott’s piece gave her the rare opportunity to do a show about theatre in a big old theatre.

“It’s very aggressive and not for kids,” says Settle of the work. “There are themes of abuse, denial and transformation.”

Then again, you’ll also see people being sawed in half, things emerging from hats and levitation. Settle kept interrupting the interview to chase on of the rabbits from the show that was bunking at her apartment.

“The show is only about an hour and 15 minutes,” Settle says. “But by the end of that time, the actors are standing there dripping in sweat.”

“It’s really a very weird show,” says Rachel Sledd, a co-founder of Thirteenth Tribe and the actress playing Calibana. “I’m not sure if things spiral, weave or crash into each other.” Sledd will share the stage with George A. Wilson, a veteran local actor. An appropriately tacky live band will accompany the machinations.

In conception at least, the play seems rather like John Osborne’s “The Entertainer,” in which the late Laurence Olivier starred more than 40 years ago. But there were no rabbits in that show.

“The magic expanded and just took over my play,” says McDermott, whose recent feature “Serious Business” did well on the film-festival circuit. “It was very strange.”