Articles and Reviews

Waxing Poetic: Charlie Levin's Paintings as Performance

Posted By Irene Hsiao on
Mon, Dec 15, 2014 at 7:50 AM
SF Weekly

The apocryphal etymology of sincerity has its origins in the idea of artistic perfection: that a well-chiseled marble sculpture would not require the sly application of wax to fill cracks or repair contours, thus, it was sine sera — “without wax.” 

This account of the word has been disproven, and artists working in encaustic techniques have similarly challenged wax’s association with defects. Among them is Charlie Levin, who applies wax to glass to create paintings that seem thickly textured and opaque as plaster, yet which, when lit, reveal more stories than a stained glass window. 

“The magic trick is about controlling transparency,” Levin says. 

She is describing the way her paintings show an entirely different image when they are lit from the front or behind, producing a visceral astonishment and perplexity that that the eyes could be so deceived about the nature of the object. Yet she could also be talking about the impact of her work, which produces layers of meaning that question what we can know about the world and those in it: stolid, seated figures on a neutral ground rise up and become muscular Blakean demigods wrestling one other or traversing a barren universe in her massive four panel painting SecondSight (2003), a pale face darkens and broods in a portrait, a mirrored surface in which you see the full length of your body becomes a skeleton in one of the eight panels of Face2Face (2011) — an x-ray, a memento mori, a reminder of the generic and the strange that lurks beneath the surface of all mortal things. 

Despite the complexity of her images, Levin says:

“The end result of the painting is not the point. It is only an artifact. The way I see life is that we are the product of our experiences, including who we are born as, and our families, and our environment, and the things that happen to us. When you meet somebody, you can’t see that. You see little bits and pieces. And they change, and we change.” 

Consequently, painting for Levin is a process rather than a product, an art form that has found a natural outlet in performance. As a student majoring in art and philosophy, Levin had the realization that, rather than creating static images, she could create immersive environments in which the viewers walking through would become the figures of the painting. 

“It’s all about the body,” she explains. “It’s not a room of stuff that people get to see; it’s about the interaction of your body in this space.” 

An early installation The Square Root of Infinity (1992), created in collaboration with a dancer and a musician for a course called “Dance and the Related Arts,” whetted her appetite for fortuitous intersections of movement and visual art. This lead Levin to seek work with several Chicago theater companies, including Lookingglass Theatre, before establishing Local Infinities Visual Theater in 1996 with collaborator Meghan Strell. 

It was in a Local Infinities piece called Wax and Wayne (2002), in which Levin and Strell used 200 pounds of wax to tell an adaptation of the myth of Pygmalion, that Levin realized the act of painting itself could become a performance. Levin painted the story in colored wax on a clear, human-sized panel of Plexiglas, gradually replacing a white form with the blushing figure of the living sculpture Galatea. 

“The point is that the image itself changes and changes, each time leaving pieces and parts that overlay each other. The result is something completely different, made of the sum of its parts.” Performing the piece at the Oerol Festival of Site-Specific Theater in the Netherlands, Levin discovered the play of light she calls “the magic,” which touched off her investigation in encaustic painting. 

Her Berkeley studio is still littered with experiments in wax — nubbins and curls erupting from the aluminum tins like petrified sea creatures neatly categorized by color and opacity, and studies in white wax colored by opaque titanium and transparent zinc on oblong lengths of glass arranged like a series of microscope slides. 

Based in the Bay Area since 2010, Levin has exhibited work at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the Oakland Art Murmur, and the Performance Art Institute, as well as created installations for CODAME, The Wayfinders Performance Group, The Decameron at Fort Mason, and China Lounge in Pleasanton. Earlier this year, she collaborated with technology and performance company Kinetech Arts in TheOtherSight, a performance on surveillance in which panels from SecondSight served as a moving set that exposed visual secrets as it was washed over by digital flames and water ripples. On Tuesday, Levin previews a work-in-progress performance of her own, Single-Point Perspective: The One Truthiness. Using the transparency and mutability of wax to tell a visual story in live painting that considers our ability to recognize other bodies as our own, Levin reminds, in this, as well as her whole oeuvre, that a picture presents the illusion of a world in which all things can be perceived, though it exists within a world in which perspective limits our understanding. 

Kinetech Arts Featured Artist Program presents Charlie Levin in "Single-Point Perspective: The One Truthiness" at 8:30 p.m. on December 16 at KUNST-STOFF arts, 1 Grove St., S.F. Admission is free; $5 suggested donation


John Beer / NewCity
PAC/edge Performance Festival   
Athenaeum / Chicago / 2004

Charlie Levin and Natalie Brewster Nguyen performing SecondPlace at PAC/Edge Performing Arts Festival, Chicago, 2004

The world would be a better place if we were all more like Charlie Levin. SecondPlace, conceived by Levin and created and performed by her with Natalie Brewster Nguyen, inquires into the mythic and philosophical roots of contemporary dislocation. A voiceover informs us about the plight of refugees, the etymology of "hegira," and revisionist readings of Yahweh’s "I am that I am." Meanwhile, Levin and Nguyen, like nymphs out of Kafka, sport festoons of bureaucratic paperwork and interrupt the flow of information with fractured questioning and fragmentary dialogue. The performance’s good intentions are relentless. Even its most striking moments, when the performers invite audience members into their space or confront them with shifting configurations of Levin’s remarkable painted cabinets, never push beyond the limits of polite engagement. I left feeling like I’d visited a more advanced culture, where complex and difficult issues could be meditated upon in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and where intolerance is the only form of sin. Especially on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, few messages could be more timely. So why, when I got home, did I rush for my copy of "Appetite for Destruction?

More about SecondPlace 


PAC/edge Performance Festival
by Carmen Marti
(written for the Chicago Reader)
March, 2004

What you see is rarely all you get with Charlie Levin. Take the name. Must be male, right?


Charlie Levin, whose true birth name is a deep secret, is a 34-year-old woman making her living as a freelance designer.

No, she's GirlCharlie living as an artist in Chicago since 1992. Many may know her as a performance artist, originally with the troupe she co-founded "Local Infinities Visual Theater." But GirlCharlie hasn't performed in nearly two years. That's because she's been painting, generally large-scale wax images on glass. But as a performer, she often painted her body, enacting the metaphors she's interested in as a painter.

Sound confusing? It's not really. In fact, at the PAC/edge Performance Festival last year, Levin's wax painting installation, "Second Sight," was simply cool. The viewer came upon four large, richly painted glass panels hooked to a box with four switches. As each switch was flipped, a light source transformed the mythic, figurative images on the panel into something completely different.

In many ways the piece perfectly captured Levin's philosophy about life and her art. "When we meet people," she says, "we only see a small fragment of them. There's always more to the picture, there are always multiple truths. Everything I do is about multiple views."

Exploring this multiplicity and seeking some semblance of insight and connection led Levin to major in both philosophy and fine art at the University of Michigan. The product of an "arts heavy childhood" – Levin's grandmother attended the School of the Art Institute; her father did community theater – she combined her interests by studying transparency in experience and by employing transparent materials in her artwork. Thus Levin's early creations were books made with layers of transparent paper and paintings done on glass.

But it wasn't long until Levin decided she wanted the figures she was painting to be live people, and for the environments she was creating to be actual ones. So, in college Levin also started exploring theater and performance.

When it was time to graduate in the early 1990s, Levin chose to move from Washington D.C., where she grew up, to Chicago, where her grandparents and extended family live, and where she already knew people at the Theatre School of DePaul University. "Chicago had young energy," Levin says, and she wanted to immerse herself in the emerging arts scene.

She began participating in the theater community, interning at Lookingglass and getting her first gigs as a set designer at Organic Theater Company. There, she wanted her contribution to the production to act almost as one of the characters, for the set to "have an equal voice in the show." At about the same time, Levin was involved with others in the performance art community, and collaborating with actor Meghan Strell as "Local Infinities."

It was through that union that Levin found her current interest in wax. When they were working on the piece "Wax and Wayne," she realized she could paint on glass during the performance and that it would dry quickly enough to work in real time.

"That was a discovery," Levin says. "Wax is the perfect medium to express that there's always something more." With wax on glass, she can show complexity through hidden layers, revealed through the movement of light. Viewers engage with the art by following what is variously made visible

This year in the PAC/edge Performance Festival, Levin has returned to the stage with a new work called "SecondPlace." She has advanced from a box of light switches to a new technology developed by Josh Flachsbart of Northwestern University's Intelligent Information Laboratory. Now, when the actors —Levin and Natalie Brewster Nguyen — move, they trigger a mechanism that projects their silhouettes in other places on the stage. This, combined with a soundscape by Nguyen and Chris Heinisch, creates a state of flux that viewers must navigate to make sense of. It's all very much like our everyday experience, Levin says.

"With all the information overload [we face]," she says, "the skill to success is to say 'no.' What you filter out is how you get along. We have to ask how things relate to us. How they work, how we work and how we deal with constant change. The show is about how we find each other in this constant state of flux."

In addition to Levin's performance piece, she has a new installation at the PAC festival. This piece, "Handle with Care: Direct Mail and the American Dream," departs from wax and glass to further explore our culture of information overload. Using nine years of junk mail received by one elderly couple, Levin illuminates the manipulation and greed underlying political propaganda.

"SecondPlace" will be performed on Saturdays at 7:30 and 10 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. from March 13 through April 4 in the Lobby Studio of the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. "Handle with Care: Direct Mail and the American Dream" will be on view in the 2nd Floor Hallway of the theater from March 12 through April 18.

"For its mix of media and its sheer originality, daring and ambition, Wax & Wayne has no rival. And as a testament to what artists will do for the sake of art, it certainly pushes the envelope. Eat your heart out, Madame Tussaud.   Highly Recommended"  
— Chicago Sun-Times, 2003

". . . a theatrical ode to the pleasures of playing with wax.   Critics Choice"  
— Chicago Tribune , 2003

"Probably the most incredible sight on any stage this year occurred during Local Infinites' Wax & Wayne."   
— Chicago Sun-Times, 2003

". . . breathtaking in its intertwined intelligence and emotional intriguing, smart, wholly accessible meditation on creative identity, power, transformation and sacrifice.   Critic's Choice"  
— Chicago Reader, 2003

". . . de geestige, zeer visueel ingestelde voorstelling."  
— The Dome, 2003

"Just when you think the Fringe has run out of new ideas, something surprises you . . . The strikingly beautiful images in Wax & Wayne often defy expectations . . . It’s like a Twilight Zone episode set in Madame Tussaud’s museum.

The ingenuity with which [the artists] utilize wax would be enough to make a brilliant piece, but these Chicago performers also craft a riveting narrative that brings to mind influences as diverse as Strindberg, Pygmalion and Frankenstein.

Special credit must go to Tom Howe, who provides the evening’s creepy soundtrack. . . . His orchestra of everyday objects makes the clangers in Stomp sound like mere noisemakers.”  
Time Out New York, 2003


'Wax & Wayne' lives up to name
Theater Review by Hedy Weiss Theater Critic
August 21, 2002


Somewhere at the crossroads of theater, sculpture, painting and Houdini-like derring-do comes "Wax & Wayne," a one-of-a-kind, like-nothing-you've-ever-seen-before sort of production that should, ideally, be experienced rather than described.

A cast list tells only part of the story, unless you include a giant metal vat containing 200 kilograms of hot wax along with a pair of fearless actors (Meghan Strell as Wax and Larry Underwood as Wayne), a wholly remarkable paint-as-you-watch artist (Charlie Levin) and a live musician (Tom Howe) who creates a vivid soundtrack with everything from water glasses and a metronome to hammering on bicycle spokes.

For a plot line, think of a slightly revised version of the Pygmalion myth (in which a sculptor makes an ideal woman, falls in love with her and brings her to life). Think as well of artists' eternal and often frustrating struggle to transform the visions in their heads into reality. Then toss in some genuinely dangerous but playfully executed circuslike risk-taking.

Conceived by the four performers, directed by John Musial (of Lookingglass provenance) and designed by Sage Reed (with lighting by Jenna Sjunnesson McDanold), "Wax & Wayne" is, as a program note explains, a work of alchemy--one that transforms essentially base materials (water, dirt, wax) into something new, strangely beautiful and, at moments, surprisingly comic.

Though based in Chicago, the Local Infinities Visual Theater company, founded in 1996, has performed largely at international festivals, from the Netherlands (where this piece was a recent hit) to the Ukraine. Audiences here should now begin to make the acquaintance of this intimate, alternately teasingly ghoulish and haunting paraffin-based spectacle that says much about artmaking, about the yawning gap between fantasy and reality, about gender and more.

As you take your seat for the show, you see a beautiful statue of a woman in a classical, half-nude pose. It turns out to be Strell, encased in voile and wax and a full-face mask. As she tries to break out of her timeless form, the artist (Underwood) tries to "repair" her, hastily replacing fingers and a whole hand. But gradually she comes to life, breaking out of her waxy casing and exerting her will as the sculptor grows both anxious and amorous. This scene is perhaps just a bit too cute and precious, even though it probably saves the whole undertaking from lapsing into a certain kinkiness.

Once Wax becomes a real woman, an intriguing exchange of roles takes place as she proceeds to make a sculpture out of Wayne. Just how this is accomplished is quite astonishing, with Underwood submerging himself in a cold bath before being tied to a swinging platform, and finally dunked--twice--into a great canister of hot wax.

At the same time that all this is taking place, Levin, the Painter, stands off to the side, working continually on a large glass panel as she underscores and riffs on the story being acted out. By the end of the show, she has created a fabulously expressive painting of a large, primitive female figure superimposed with Adam and Eve-like portraits.

For its mix of media and its sheer originality, daring and ambition, "Wax & Wayne" has no rival. And as a testament to what artists will do for the sake of art, it certainly pushes the envelope. Eat your heart out, Madame Tussaud.

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company


Hot "Wax and Wayne" gives chills
Theater review, By Chris Jones
August 21, 2002

When the people at Madame Tussaud's are asked why they've never switched to newer technologies, they invariably reply that wax remains the best material in which to duplicate the human form. "Wax and Wayne," the unusual and arresting little performance piece on offer at the National Pastime Theatre
from a young group called Local Infinities Visual Theatre, is something of a riff on that assumption.

But it's also a theatrical ode to the pleasures of playing with wax.

If you ever stuck in your finger in the melted pool on the top of a candle just so you could feel the brief pinch of pain followed by the startling sensation of a liquid instantly becoming a solid on top of your skin then you'll understand this show on the visceral level that its creators clearly intended. If the idea of pealing wax away from your skin sounds pointless and absurd, well, this is probably not a good entertainment option.

A cross between an art installation and a performance piece, the main action of the wordless "Wax and Wayne" involves two very capable and intensely focused performers. At the start of the show, an immobile Megan Strell (Wax) is covered in the stuff from head to toe. Over the course of the next hour,
Strell slowly frees herself from these constraints, even as her partner Larry Underwood (Wayne) goes in the opposite direction.

At one point, Underwood is lowered via a kind of pulley system into a massive vat of melted wax, which is enough to give one chills even from 50 feet away. His smile takes on a fixed kind of look thereafter, but he seems unscathed.

As this pair are waxing and waning (and thus exploring issues of freedom and control), a female visual artist called Charlie Levin creates a beguiling two-dimensional image of the human form on a translucent canvas. Meanwhile, a musician called Tom Howe creates a bevy of sounds from found objects, including a wineglass and an alarm clock.

"Wax and Wayne," which is directed by John Musial and comes replete with a healthy sense of irony, already has been produced to sold-out houses at Oerol, a Dutch festival of site-specific performance. And, although the overall visual look of the piece sometimes feels cluttered rather than
carefully chosen, the hourlong work fits very nicely inside the intimate former speak-easy now known as the National Pastime Theatre.

Local Infinities likes to specialize in shows themed around inanimate objects water, dirt and so on. Since the theater typically is interested only in inter-human interaction, this gives this talented group an interesting and original niche and the capability to make a viewer think in strikingly different aesthetic terms.

"Wax and Wayne" does not build like a typical play. But despite its long association with mute dummies, wax is far more dramatic than you might think.

Copyright 2002 Tribune Interactive


"WAX & WAYNE," Local Infinities at National Pastime Theater

Performance Review by Lucia Mauro
August 12, 2002 [ chicago theater ]

In Ovid’s myth of "Pygmalion and Galatea" – about a woman-hating sculptor who eventually falls in love with the female statue he molds to soft perfection – Galatea’s transformation from stone to flesh is likened to "watching wax soften in the sun" (at least by mythology guru Edith Hamilton). Local Infinities, a collaborative Chicago company that merges physical theater and visual art, has taken that notion to heart in its original performance piece, "Wax & Wayne," at National Pastime Theater.

But as literal as the concept may seem of witnessing one artist emerge from a wax shell and another get encased in a shroud of hot molten wax, the work undulates across an ocean of constantly transmogrifying metaphors. This 70-minute voyeuristic peek into the creative process – directed with a measured flow of unpredictability by John Musial – posits audiences in a cluttered artist’s studio. Creators Meghan Strell, Larry Underwood and Charlie Levin place themselves at the mercy of their materials, even as they try to harness that elusive artistic spark.

Levin is detached from the central Pygmalion and Galatea action. But, as she paints on a large glass canvas the Picasso-like fragments of a woman’s figure in multicolored wax brushstrokes, she forges an elusive connection to the two main figures engaged in deconstructing immortality before our eyes. 

Underwood, an absent-minded comic figure, takes on the persona of Wayne (a.k.a. Pygmalion). But, in an intriguing move away from the familiar myth, Wayne does not long for his statue (Strell in a performance of awe-inspiring endurance and flexibility) to become flesh and blood. Instead the statue asserts her will and slowly sheds small shards of her wax covering or, in figurative terms, her emotional statis. Wayne appears intermittently flummoxed and enticed by this change.

An invigorating yet sad birth and death dichotomy courses through "Wax & Wayne." The Wax figure – Strell convincingly covered from head to toe in the icy-smooth substance – breaks out of this calcified womb (an idea later mirrored in her awkward peeling of a hard-boiled egg) and gradually discovers joy, fear, sensuality and pain. Her tentative curiosity grows into confident boundary pushing until she usurps the soul of the now-subservient sculptor. But this is no quaint role-reversal study.

Wayne already has tread on those experiences – from ecstasy to anxiety to longing for fulfillment and artistic truth seeking – that make us human. His wish, therefore, is to merge with his art – not by uniting with his dream-statue-turned-real woman, but by marrying the very process that defines him. In a complex and dangerously timed series of hoisting and dunking, Underwood later emerges from a tub of molten wax heated at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The liquid coating then becomes a simultaneous life-ending and life-preserving force (unfortunately, the humidity on opening night did not allow all of the wax to adhere to Underwood’s flesh, but the point was made nonetheless.) 

One can’t help but envy Wayne’s statuesque permutation, while lamenting all that Strell’s former wax figure still has to learn through trial and error as a human.

A profoundly meditative and inspiring performance piece, accompanied by the resourceful live sound effects of Tom Howe (using a pipe, bicycle wheel, metronome, alarm clock, saw and concertina), "Wax & Wayne" prompts larger ponderings: For instance, how much of ourselves do we inject into our own daily masterpieces (from job performance to relationships), and how does our quest for immortality manifest itself in the desire to leave a legacy?

The last striking moment, which involves Levin’s finished painting and a gasp-inducing optical illusion created by lighting designers Jenna Sjunneson McDanold and Ben Spicer, brilliantly serves to dismantle and enliven those thoughts. The solid but worn vintage National Pastime space also reminds us of the fragility and invincibility of our existence.


Wax players, Visual theater piece dripping with innovation
Curtain Call by Mary Houlihan
August 16, 2002

As stage props go, 300 pounds of candle wax is an odd request. But in Local Infinities' latest production, "Wax and Wayne," candle wax takes center stage. Yes, in a cleverly concocted performance piece the substance takes on a new life and new meanings. 

Here, wax appears in many forms: liquid, solid, pliable, painted, sculpted, molded and melted. It is used to paint the metaphor of the waxing and waning of creative identity. The mysteries of this concept are etched in the story of two characters as they trade places: one emerges from a wax shell, the other prepares to plunge into a vat of molten wax.

That amazing scenario is just part of a clever visual story (there are no words) created by theater artist F. Meghan Strell and installation artist Charlie Levin, better known as Local Infinities. For six years, they have devoted their talents to creating visual theater that is definitely not run-of-the-mill. For this original theater piece, the duo has collaborated with Larry Underwood, who has worked with Plasticene and Redmoon Theater, and most recently spent several years with Holland's edgy performance troupe, Dogtrope. Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member John Musial directs.

"The way we create is to pick a material and see how it works and what stories it wants to tell," explained Strell, who also has worked with Redmoon. "Part of why we do all this is to figure out how metaphor works. By working with the material and seeing how it behaves, we get to create those metaphors in a poetic way and that is very satisfying for us."

The duo's previous work has dealt with, among other things, water, light bulbs and rope. Strell says she first became enamored with the physical qualities of wax while cleaning up after a Christmas party. Dipping candle holders into warm water to clean them of wax drippings, her hand came out shrouded in a light wax.

"It looked very beautiful," recalled Strell, "but it also had lost its functionality. My hand had become an object, and when you break out of that you have this whole world to explore."

Then Strell looked up "wax" in the dictionary.

"To grow, to increase, to gradually increase in numbers," recited Strell. "It read like poetry and sounded like a great place to start."

The team became intimately familiar with the scientific qualities of wax in order to determine what was safe and not safe. In recent years, they did numerous performances based around wax and its visual elements. "Wax and Wayne" is the culmination of these experiments. Underwood's role in the piece is as a sort of a human candle. In the course of the story, he gets dipped in a vat of wax that is 140 degrees.

"Yes, it's hot and Larry is a brave guy," said Strell, laughing. "But we've perfected it for the show. We've discovered that dipping in wax is a lot less painful than hot water. Once you get that initial coating, it's not too bad." 

In June, "Wax and Wayne" was the breakout hit at Holland's Oerol Festival, not an amazing fact once you consider that Dutch audiences are raised on visual theater, with Dogtroep being one of its prominent troupes. 

"The reaction was really strong. We had to learn to take a third bow," said Strell, laughing. While it is gaining a broader audience, physical and visual theater in Chicago has traditionally been a hard sell. The creative team is eager to see how "Wax and Wayne" will play here. 

While wax has been an obsession for the past year, Strell and Levin have a long list of materials under consideration for future works. Salt is high on the list, as are plants.

"What will we do with them?" asked Strell. "That's something we have to figure out. And that's the best, most rewarding part of the entire process. We take one object and find an infinity of things to do with it."

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company


Wax poetic, Where the candle's always, always burning  
Pick of the Week by Kate Zambreno
August 14, 2002 [ New City ]

"Would you like a finger?" 

Charlie Levin offers a broken-off digit from the row of hands clenched and curled up on the floor, where dozens of wax masks also wait patiently. Nearby in this spacious South Side loft, Meghan Strell sits stirring a Crock-Pot, stretching out paraffin ribbons by pouring the warm wax into another bucket of water. "Isn't it pretty?" she asks of her new discovery. Levin beams approvingly. "Oh, wow, it's like an infinite pool." Strell shows another trick, as she holds a mask against the window, the light flipping the image like a ghostly hologram. 

Levin and Strell are obsessed with wax. Over the past four years, their theater company, Local Infinities, has stretched the metaphorical limits of the petroleum product, starring it in four shows. Their newest installment "Wax and Wayne," just ended a successful run at the Oerol Festival in Holland and opens in Chicago this weekend. It features 300 pounds of candle wax and plays with the concept of cycles of identity and creativity that they see wax in all its forms illuminating. 

Wax is a sticky and fickle substance, quickly hardening after the heat of the liquid moment. Temperature is the most challenging aspect of working with wax, Levin and Strell agree. In preparing for "Wax and Wayne," they learned through trial and error how to create a live wax statue, finally dipping fellow collaborator Larry Underwood into an innocuous 127 degrees. The black life-size cylinder sits waiting to be filled with the warm oozy stuff, looking a little like the cauldron the fairytale witch used to boil up sweet babies.

These artist/alchemists can wax poetic about their muse for a while. Strell, an actor by training, and Levin, an installation artist who paints with wax on Plexiglass, are a virtual talking museum of this turn-of-the-century predecessor to plastic. Details like the fact that pockmarks in ancient Greek statues were filled with wax, or that the word "sincere" originally meant the absence of wax, and so on. Levin
cranks up a pre-record-era Edison wax cylinder that a musician will be playing throughout the performance. By the light, of the silvery moon... a female voice warbles. 

Before wax came other obsessions: rope, dirt, water. "We were known as the light-bulb girls for a while," laughs Strell. "And the box girls," adds Levin. After their dirt phase ended, they filled all the flowerpots in the area. And after their love affair with wax has finally waned?

"I figure we'll make a lot of candles," Strell says.


One Man One Statue
Theater Review by Elsbeth Jongsma
Issue # 9 Saturday 
July 22, 2002

Frankenstein, but more lovely.

The boat house on the Willem Barentz street is filled with low plastic chairs. Candles burn everywhere and in the corner stands a life-like statue. A young man in a white garden apron unleashes puzzling noises on a strange assembly of objects, including a bicycle wheel. On the opposite side, stands a like-clothed young woman painting upon a sheet of plexi-glass. Just as you begin to wonder where this must be going, there enters the wandering- eyed Wayne and what follows is the wordless tale of a man and a waxen statue. 

Wax and Wayne from Local Infinities out of Chicago knows many layers. Literally; as when the woman within the statue breaks free of her confining layer of wax. And then there is the plot, which by first glance, reminds one of a sort of lovelier version of Frankenstein, where the sculpture/inventor is confronted with his creation that has now come to life. In the underlying layers sit language-less lessons and hidden symbols. Over the chaos of consistancy, over the fact of what creation/destruction implies and over the ageless cycle of the moon. That sounds like a lot of superior drivel, but it gives an enjoyable poetic undercurrent to the spirited, extremely visually influenced performance. The technical highpoint being a total emersion of Wayne in a gigantic drum of at least two hundred kilograms of melted wax. 

Boathouse, West Terschelling
The Painting made during the performance will be auctioned on the Groene Strand at 2:00 pm.

More about Wax & Wayne >

Daughters of Memory Series

Lucia Mauro 
Chicago Sun-Times
Links Hall / Chicago / 2000


Taking their cue from the nine muses of classical mythology, the artists behind "Daughters of Memory" reflect on the creative process through the disciplines of poetry, visual art, theater, movement and music. Curated by visionary collaborative artists Charlie Levin and Meghan Strell of Local Infinities and staged as part of the Links Hall Performance Series, this experimental project examines the concept of artistic inspiration for our rapidly fluctuating times.

For the show's opening-weekend program, three original pieces tackled conflicting notions of reaching self-fulfillment through the arts. Anyone who has ever struggled with a loss of inspiration or has felt dwarfed by the towering geniuses of the past will appreciate these artists' frank and funky viewpoints.

The most striking work on the program is "wax (v.) to come to be." The work, which uses the lost-wax casting process as a metaphor, silently re-enacts the power struggle between the artist and his art. It features "living" sculptures that shed their wax forms to assume the role of active shapers of their own destinies.

As the performers interact with masks, wax-hand prostheses and malleable wax balls, they evoke various levels of mentor-student relationships, issues of artistic control, fear of revealing one's true self, and the courage to break through barriers of prejudice and elitism. Director KellyAnn Corcoran and collaborators Levin, Strell, Mark Comiskey, Hilary Mac Austin, Sheri Doyel, Heather Ireland and Linda Solotaire craft wrenching images that haunt the psyche and lift the spirits.

"Split," co-written by Chris Seibert and Ivana Bevacqua, is another ambitious psychological piece. Performed by Seibert, it follows a spiritual being in her erratically shifting search for the contemporary meaning of the muse. She gathers white bundles of material, which represent male ideals of "nymph"-like sources of inspiration. Then she spreads out the fabric and traipses across a landscape that symbolizes society's contradictory perceptions of female traits. Although portions of her monologue lose focus, Seibert presents a complex study of identity, self-empowerment and the artist in search of her voice.

Amy Ludwig, a respected writer and director, examines the more destructive aspects of conjuring the muse in her solo work, "Master Piece." It uses fragmented references to Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare to trace the torment of a writer stifled by her own inner spark. Ludwig ponders a huge white billowing sheet, tries to free herself of distraction and even prepares an altar to elusive muselike spirits. But the meandering work ends abruptly and leaves us as empty as the artist who has lost the burning passion to create.

Over the next two weekends, "Daughters of Memory" will feature new works dealing with similar themes; "wax" and "Split" will be repeated.

More about Daughters of Memory 
More about Wax (v.) To Come to Be 

"Intellectually satisfying . . . surprising, strange, abstract grace"
— Lucia Mauro / Chicago Sun-Times / 1998

"a melding of sharp-edged performance art and grand theatrical traditions"
 — Carol Burbank / Chicago Reader / 1998

The Queens Project
Local Infinities and Raging Papist
Lunar Cabaret / Chicago 

by Lucia Mauro / Chicago Sun-Times / 1998

The rivalry for the English throne between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots has probably never before been given the postmodern design Local Infinities gives it in The Queens Project. Inspired by Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart and the tragic fact that the two sisters never met, although their conflict produced minor wars, assassination plots, and Mary's much dramatized beheading, this history piece seems as rigorous and detailed (and sometimes as long-winded) as any docudrama. Yet the two queens inhabit a world of cold steel and raw pine blocks; perched on stilts, they scratch out decrees with a large nail on bits of metal. The set and plain costumes effectively reduce the characters' world to a geometric structure of metal and wood; the two queens seem victims trapped in a sharp-edged, untrustworthy machine. Emphasizing its dangers are the production's formal language and dignified, courtly postures, stripping the story down to the political relationship between the women and their courts and eliminating the seductive lushness of ornate costumes and Elizabethan pageantry. Elizabeth's legendary virginity and Mary's search for power through her husbands—drawn in almost obsessive detail but visually detached from the women's histories—are essentially case studies of the different strategies women use for protection and influence. An intellectually satisfying, oddly unemotional experience, The Queens Project is an admirable experiment that achieves a surprising, strange, and abstract grace. 

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The Queens Project
by Carol Burbank / Chicago Reader / 1998

The Queens Project, a melding of sharp-edged performance art and grand theatrical traditions, revisits in metaphoric terms the conflict between the monarchs Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart.

Two performance troupes, Local Infinities and Raging Papist, have collaborated on a staging whose inventive visuals speak as loudly as the historical text. The close confines of Lunar Cabaret pull audiences into the action, while the "funhouse mirror" stage illusions appear to pour out across the footlights.

According to historical documents, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, allegedly never met, though their disputes led to bloodshed over who was the heir to the throne of England. Heeding advisers, Elizabeth sentenced Mary to death for treason.

The Queens Project explores the obstacles shoved in these two powerful women's paths that prevented them from meeting and perhaps changing the course of history.

Local Infinities' clever design elements, most notably having the two rulers command the stage while walking on stilts, create a stark atmosphere. The sets feature wooden steps, stainless steel writing tablets (that double as daggers) and large nails for pens. Crates have such multiple uses as an executioners block, thrones and prison cells. The set design hurls us into a cold, mechanistic future reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's scientific blueprints.

Through a kind of minimalist artistry, the opening scene of a beheading brilliantly symbolizes misguided barbarism. Any attempt at Elizabethan fanfare is stripped to the bone and sinew of the human condition.

All of this said, The Queens Project seems fragmented. Elizabeth's well-documented arguments against marriage and Mary's tragic unions are given great attention, but in a cliff Notes fashion. The artists have incorporated numerous scholarly sources in the script, yet they only scratch the surface of the women's destinies. For a deeper intellectual impact, this work requires a better understanding of the complex circumstances that led to such deadly struggles within Elizabeth's court.

Directing team Meghan Strell and Charlie Levin thrust their cast into a harrowing whirl of political conspiracy. The pacing, however, is hampered occasionally by the leads' cumbersome crutch-like stilts.

Sharon Gopfert's provocative Elizabeth reveals an intricate network of emotion that shifts from tenderness to callous self-defense. As her reluctant nemesis, Tanera Marshall's Mary merges saintliness with gracious sensuality. Russell Hardin, Kelly Van Kirk, Rick Kubes and Jonathan Watkins show their versatility in multiple roles.

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 "Local Infinites likes to specialize in shows themed around inanimate objects — water, dirt and so on. Since the theater typically is interested only in inter-human interaction, this gives this talented group an interesting and original niche and the capability to make a viewer think in strikingly different aesthetic terms."    

— Chris Jones / Chicago Tribune / 1998

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Alternating Currents

Carol Burbank / Chicago Reader / 1997

The Naked I, curated by Jonathan Pitts, is a six-week performance festival loosely organized around the theme "a feast for the senses" and featuring local artists, actors, and dancers who are restaging, reworking, or premiering short pieces. A chance to test ideas, expand works in progress, collaborate and experiment, it would seem an ideal forum for the inexperienced or border-crossing artist, but it takes a seasoned, flexible performer to make the most of such an opportunity.

Charlie Levin and Meghan Strell's  Alternating Currents charmingly explores the way light is used as a metaphor — an idea piece worth watching thanks to its clever visual design and simple concept. Three white-clad women seem to spark light out of darkness using children's old-fashioned flint-and-steel toys. Then they play with the possibilities like wondering primitives. One is greedy and wants to unscrew all the light bulbs and keep them in her basket. Another literally hides her lights under a bushel and loses them to the greedy one. But the third, in the most clever staging, attaches the bulbs, cords and all, to her belt and walks around like a mother duck with a following of light. Providing the only stage illumination, the bulbs' fluctuating patterns are beautiful as well as whimsically narrative.

Naked I — A Feast for the Senses / Series of Visual Theater
Bailiwick Arts Center / Chicago / 1997

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A Wordless Place of Light and Space

Sheri Wills / The New Art Examiner / 1994
"Light and Time" at Chicago Filmmakers

A Wordless Place of Light and Space
Installed at Chicago Filmmakers, 1994

Although forms of media change as quickly as technology advances, artists have been incorporating technology — as subject matter and/or as medium — for the better part of the Modern era. From experimental film to kinetic sculpture, work that falls under the label "new technology" has been engaged in virtually ever art-world dialogue of the twentieth century. Most exhibitions of technolgically based art, however, fix an intent gaze upon the newness of the materials. By obsessively focusing on the wonders of the present and the potential for the future, they deny the art-work an art-historical context, sapping from it whatever power it has to communicate by emphasizing its (often limiting) ability to dazzle.

A two-day event that exhibited, screened, and staged both new and historical works of art, including static and interactive objects, film, video, and performance, "Light & Time" succeeded not only in spotlighting current technology, but in providing a conceptual and historical basis for it as well. Curator and Chicago inter-media artist Kathleen Kirka linked the various piece together with an emphasis on meaning over form.. . .

The two installations that worked most effectively with the theme of light and time were Kostas Dimitreas and Charlie Levin's timed-light recordings projects on gauzy screens, A Wordless Place of Light and Space, and Michael Roedemer's film, sound, and mixed-media Light from Another Time. Both pieces worked spatially with projected light, bringing to mind ideas of ephemera, memory, and distance.

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Marc Spiegler / New City / 1994

Much like performances by the Neo-Futurist theater group behind the exhibit, the show's charm lies in its jarring juxtapositions. The artists range from professionals to cast members' parents. Following the portraits chronologically, for instance, you progress from elementary-school student Ellen Guerrero's "Abraham Lincoln" to Kevin Dean's political portrait of Andrew Jackson, "Remaining Active After Impeachment," and then on to Erich Wilhelm Zander's, "Grant Piece," which metonymizes Grant's lung-cancered death through a hermetically sealed pile of ash. Some pieces, like Gregory Araya's "REDEYEKE," draw directly on history; others relate to the artist's experience, such as Chris Nguyen's "In Sauce," a photographic triptych based on Lyndon B. Johnson's involvement with the Vietnam war that made Nguyen's family into refugees.

Charlie Levin's Thomas Jefferson piece, Legacy, stands apart, combining window screening, ink, and paper into a leathery abstract form. Granted, many works fall short of Levin's textural manipulation, or Nguyen's intimacy, but if you're hitting the NeoFuturarium anyway, leave yourself time to scope out the myriad meanings we assign the Presidency. Open for free viewing one hour before Neo-Futurist performances.

The Neo-Futurist "Hall of Presidents"  
Neo-Futurarium  / Chicago / 1994



Maura Troester / Chicago Reader / 1994
Halcyone Productions  
Heartland Studio Theatre / Chicago 

It's one of those things you don't even know is missing until you find it. But when you do, you let out a prayer of thanks. "Yes!" you want to exclaim. "This is what's needed." I walked into the Heartland Studio Theatre to see Halcyone Productions' Ironmistress, sat down, and looked around. And there it was. That missing thing. It oozed out of Charlie Levin's gorgeous set, Glenn Swan's haunting sound design, even the program. Integrity. Theatrical integrity.

I wanted to go backstage immediately after the performance and thank the whole lot of them. Here was a new theater company that obviously cared about its audience: a novel concept. I had honestly become so accustomed to companies that care only about their own "vital messages" that I'd forgotten that my pleasure as an audience member was important.

. . . Halcyone Productions makes no bones about being a feminist theater group, but unlike many politically motivated ensembles, this one graciously refrains from telling us what to think. Instead, they go all out to give us something to think about.

Every element of this production is calculated to make Martha and Little Cog's world a real place. Lou Bird's costumes firmly ground the fantastical action in 19th-century England, and dramaturge Julie Massey's time line in the program places 19th-century England in the context of the rest of the world. Levin's set captures the allure and power of Britain's burgeoning industrial revolution, while hinting at the verdant countryside that seems about to be wasted. And Christy Jones's effective lighting subtly changes to underline the lurid side of Martha and Little cog's memories and fantasies, their raw energy.

Jennifer Yeo as Martha and Tina Fey as Little Cog are both captivatingly honest. They're not icons or heroines. They're real women, flesh and blood, and interesting as hell to watch.

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