Rare Bird: “All 100 Fires”

by Jeff Grygny

In the migration seasons we see all kinds of non-native birds that are just stopping for a quick nosh on their way to something better. For quite a few years now, a random selection of Milwaukeeans have had the magical luck of spotting writer/performer/puppeteer and underground wandervogel Donna Oblongata on one of her periodic low-flying tours of the nation. She plays in rough offbeat venues, and publicity is largely by word of mouth or the digital equivalent, but her rambling, whimsical, one-night-only shows are priceless happenings.

This year it was All 100 Fires in a bare room upstairs from Company Brewing. As this year she performs solo, the show is less elaborate than her past DIY spectaculars, which might have scenes taking place in puppet stages, dioramas, or hand-painted scrolls. And, in tune with this peculiarly fraught moment in American culture, it features a darker, less whimiscal mood than in previous years. But these things don’t keep it from being inventive, brimming with compassion, and monstrously funny. Oblongata shows herself to be more than capable of holding the stage. With a stuffed crotch and a crepe hair beard, she plays the nameless leader of a down-and-out revolutionary army, greeting us as the latest bunch of recruits to be trained in a regime of survivalism and shambolic machismo. Speaking in an indefinable accent, she could be from anyplace in the world where political ends are pursued at the ends of semi-automatic rifles. Modeling toughness as best she can, she lays down the rules, issues death threats, leads team-building exercises, dis- and re-assembles an actual AK-47, and—with the flourish of a grotesque sight gag that’s likely to be forever burned on our unfortunate retinas—demonstrates how to make gunpowder out of human urine (“I get the sulfur from the Home Depot”). These lessons in the manly art of revolution take on even more charge when you learn that they contain direct quotes from Ted Kaczynski, Che Guevara, and Jim Jones.

Oblongata’s stories generally collage several seemingly random elements whose common thread is evocatively revealed in the telling; often her protagonists are loners: artists and scientists pursuing eccentric visions. Here, she paints a blurry picture of the insurgent’s life in cryptic but telling details: the loss of her comrades, the senseless time spent roaming over an illegible landscape, how she comes to keep her brother’s eyeballs in a cardboard box, and how, when the war is won, we will all have streets and schools named after us—though we probably won’t be around to see it.

This bathetic saga is juxtaposed with the life and work of John James Audubon, a feckless character in his own right, often broke and unemployed, who shot and killed hundreds of wild birds in the course of creating his masterpiece. From time to time the action breaks for Oblongata to manipulate a series of bird puppets: a great auk, a flock of starlings. We learn the strange story of how the starling was brought to North America (blame Shakespeare), and varied other ways in which human beings have manhandled the natural world. What does guerilla warfare have to do with displaced wildlife? That’s a question we are left to ponder, as themes swirl and flutter around us, right up to the shattering conclusion, which mashes tragedy against long-odds hope.

Few people will see Oblongata’s work in the grand scheme of things. But like the exquisite gestures of Quixote or Cyrano De Bergerac, the world is a more beautiful and noble place because of it.

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