Poetry of failure comes to life with ‘Baudelaire In A Box’

Colm and kids

Chicago performer Colm O’Reilly performs his adaptation of a poem by Charles Baudelaire, accompanied by his children on piano and guitar. (Photo courtesy Theater Oobleck.)

As the Lollapalooza festival hit downtown Chicago in August 2017, a theater on the city’s north side hosted a very different kind of music marathon: Original musical adaptations of every poem from 19th-Century French writer Charles Beaudelaire’s book, “Les Fleurs du Mal”– call it “Mal-a-palooza.”

I reported the story for NPR’s All Things Considered

Charles Baudelaire— who died 150 years ago this month—  is the original poet of extreme disappointment: what Baudelaire himself called “spleen”: all the awful feelings we usually keep to ourselves.

Not necessarily the kind of guy you’d want to spend a whole weekend with.

In the case of visual artist Dave Buchen, it’s been more like eight years: his paintings accompany every one of the Baudelaire poems being performed in this festival.

When the project started, he was a new father, desperate for something kid-un-friendly.

“I was reading to my children every night ‘The Little Red Train,’” Buchen recalls. “I read that about probably a thousand times. And so, Baudelaire is— bad sex, bad drugs, death…”

“….failure, remorse, ruining your life,” chimes in songwriter Chris Schoen— Buchen’s main collaborator on the project.

“Yeah!” says Buchen. “Loved it.”

The project started small: Buchen illustrated five Baudelaire poems about wine— and scrolled his images across the front of a wooden wine box with a hand-held crank, while Schoen sang and played.

Kind of a miniature, 19th-century music video.

Chris and Dave

Dave Buchen (left) and Chris Schoen (right) perform a Baudelaire poem. (Photo courtesy Theater Oobleck.)

Buchen says things got more ambitious due to a random suggestion after a show.

“Some guy came up to us,” Buchen recalls, “and he said, ‘So, are you going to do one for every poem?’ And we laughed at him and said that’s an insane idea.”

Insane or no, it became a series of shows called Baudelaire in a Box. Once a year or so, Buchen would produce a scroll illustrating another dozen or so poems, and Schoen would recruit songwriters, musicians, and singers to collaborate on the music.

A couple of frequent collaborators— singers Emmy Bean and T-Roy Martin— show up in this  especially-catchy tune, which starts:

If your heart is not a total fake
Inside it sits a yellow snake
Saying all you do is a mistake

The songs all favored acoustic treatments, until Schoen recruited veteran Chicago indie-rocker Bobby Conn for a 2015 show.

“When I just started reading those Baudelaire lyrics,” Conn recalls, “I was like: This is so goth and so metal. It’s just not really folk music at all.”

After producing more than a hundred songs, Buchen and Schoen decided to wrap up with the grand, what-the-heck gesture of this week’s festival: Bringing together more than 50 artists, some of them flying in from places like Puerto Rico, and Argentina.

Closed Casket poster for web500w

It’s a big stretch for Theater Oobleck, the tiny company to which Buchen and Schoen belong. Oobleck has been presenting brainy, deeply-eccentric, original works for almost 30 years— with a minimal budget.

And the company has a deliberately loose organizational structure:

“We work without a director,” explains festival producer and Oobleck ensemble member Diana Slickman.  “Which makes a lot of people cock their head and look at you like a  puppy, like, ‘What? How do you do that?’”

They also work without any full-time staff, a permanent location, or a regular season. In addition to writing and performing, ensemble members do all the grunt work— costumes, lights, marketing.

…and decisions get made by consensus— or on the fly— which is how Slickman ended up agreeing to produce the festival.

(“I’ll tell you what: I don’t think I did agree to it,” she says. “I remember having a conversation with somebody saying, you know, ‘Who’s going to produce this thing?’ And I said, ‘Well, I might be interested in that.’”)

Oobleck’s unusual approach has won the company fans in high and low places:  Half of the festival’s $30,000 budget came from the National Endowment for the Arts. The other half was raised on Kickstarter.

Saturday features a 12-hour marathon— everything that’s been performed to date. The next day, every poem that Oobleck hasn’t adapted before— about 30— will get a one-time-only airing, with all-new music.

And then, it’s done. Everyone goes home.  

Buchen says he doesn’t know what his next project will be, but this one has lasted long enough that Baudelaire is no longer a safe haven from his kids.

“We were walking in the park one day,” he says, “and my kids and I were playing ‘dare’— like, ‘Dare you to climb a tree.’ Or, ‘Dare  you to jump over that park bench.’  And I said, ‘Dare you to jump up on top of that fountain and sing a song.’

“And my daughter, she jumped right up on top of that fountain and started singing, ‘Satan, have pity on my long misery…’”

The refrain from Buchen’s own favorite Baudelaire tune, “Litanies of Satan,” as adapted by Theater Oobleck’s Emmy Bean:

You’re most wise and fair of all the angels young,
O god, whom fate betrayed and left unsung.
O Satan, have pity on my  long misery…