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The future's so bright 

Chicago's Neo-Futurists bring their long-running hit to Dad's Garage

Give the Neo-Futurists an hour and they'll give you:

- Two lovers exchanging passionate, inane endearments like "You make me want to sing like a dog whistle!"

- A heartfelt eulogy for one of the performer's late aunts.

- A sequel to Pride and Prejudice in which exactly nothing happens.

- A get-out-the-vote rant against George W. Bush.

- A dance number about metrosexuality.

- Twenty-five other wildly diverse short plays.

But just because you see something once in the Neo-Futurists' show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, there's no guarantee you'll ever see it again. The show features 30 original plays performed in a rigidly timed 60 minutes, but the order is sometimes rearranged and new pieces are rotated in every time.

"Too Much Light is a reflection of what we see around us," says Sharon Greene, the Neo-Futurists' newest member. "It's like a rolling newspaper."

Too Much Light is the signature show of the Chicago-based theater company, providing half of a Neo-Futurist double bill that plays Dad's Garage this month. After Too Much Light closes March 13, Dad's transforms its Top Shelf space into a bar for the Neo-Futurists' Drinking and Writing, a comic meditation on the relationship between authors and alcoholism that runs March 18-27.

This is the Neo-Futurists' third appearance at Dad's Garage, and it's no surprise that the two theater troupes mesh so well. "We have the same attitude, tone and type of audience, and neither of us offer traditional kinds of theater," says Sean Daniels, artistic director of Dad's Garage, which produced the Neo-Futurists' 43 Plays For 43 Presidents in 2002.

For 16 years, the Neo-Futurists have been building a national reputation, touring the country, gathering awards and using experimental methods to develop scripts that consistently amuse and connect with audiences. Their most famous alumnus, Greg Kotis, co-created the hit musical Urinetown.

While they share the home of the Second City, America's landmark improv company, the Neo-Futurists are not an improv troupe -- their theater comes from painstaking, often highly personal preparation.

Neo-Futurism began in 1988 with the first production of Too Much Light. Founder and director Greg Allen envisioned a show that emphasized speed, brevity, audience interaction and social consciousness. The title came from a medical study about an autistic child who uttered the words of the play's name while smashing light bulbs.

Allen and his original cast expected the evening of short, ensemble-created scripts to play a couple of months. Instead, Too Much Light became so popular that the show has run continuously in Chicago for more than 15 years, with different members of the troupe rotating in and out every few weeks to write and perform new material. In 1992, the company opened its own playhouse, the Neo-Futurarium, and every season they debut several full-length plays like Drinking and Writing.

Although it's become an institution, Too Much Light retains its spontaneity with a couple of zany gimmicks. For one, a clock counts down the 60 minutes allotted for the show. Audiences determine the order of the plays by calling out numbers on a preprinted "menu" of titles. And if Too Much Light sells out, the group orders pizza for the audience.

The Neo-Futurists have written nearly 5,000 original plays for Too Much Light. The pieces range from a few seconds to several minutes, but Greene sees strength in brevity. "You can say exactly what you mean in two minutes, and it'll be much more powerful than something fluffed out to two hours."

Too Much Light places virtually no limitations on content. A single show can include fake commercials, abstract performance pieces, pointed political commentary, childhood memories and uproarious sight gags. The players are no strangers to irony. "We're Talking Out Of and About Our Asses" lampoons listeners who take hip-hop "booty" songs (and dances) too seriously. But while a lot of improv-based theatrical comedy relies on spoofing familiar targets -- Dad's own improvised soap opera Scandal! comes to mind -- the Neo-Futurists' material rests on a foundation of sincerity.

The rules of Neo-Futurism require that the members write and perform not as invented characters, but as themselves. They're not literally portraying themselves every minute, but they're "never trying to suspend the audience's disbelief," explains Genevra Gallo, co-author of 43 Presidents. "I'm not trying to convince anyone that I'm Mrs. Franklin Pierce -- I'm obviously me."

Too Much Light and 43 Presidents consist of short works, but Drinking and Writing, written and performed by Sean Benjamin, Diana Slickman and Steve Mosqueda, is more representative of the theater's "Prime-Time" plays. The show combines the performers' personal history, dramatic readings, comic anecdotes and "bar talk" with the audience, but no "Faulkner and Hemingway walk into a bar"-type of sketches.

"While Drinking and Writing deals with the lives of the famous writers, we also examine our own lives and look at our own connections to the drinking and the writing," Mosqueda says.

The Neo-Futurists consistently provide such exhilarating theater that you can forgive the occasional instances of thudding politics or superficial insights. Their aesthetic for honesty pays off handsomely, giving weight and depth to hilarious, fast-paced shows. Whenever the Neo-Futurists hit town, they make the future of theater look a little bit brighter.

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