From the street, the building on the corner of Maplewood and Hirsch looks nondescript. Once inside, though, you’re immediately confronted by an immense wall of cardboard boxes, and shortly thereafter by an arresting catalog of descriptions from Tyler Myers, who declares, “I am the archive.” Depending upon which side of the wall you’re viewing, you’ll see either Myers, now portraying Buffalo Bill and wearing a cardboard horse, or his performing partner Stephen Fiehn, silently manipulating shadow puppets against a set of homemade light boxes. This is the beguiling world of Cupola Bobber, the performance duo staging its new work, The Field, the Mantel, in its intimate Humboldt Park studio.
The piece marks the fifth full-length performance mounted by the pair in 11 years of association. What began as a thesis collaboration between two SAIC undergrads, taking its name from the imagined juxtaposition of an architectural cupola and a fishing bobber, has grown into an enduring partnership. Talking in the studio after a recent rehearsal, Myers, 32, and Fiehn, 33, credit the leisurely pace of their development process with enabling the freedom to shape work rife with unexpected connections and strange discoveries. “Our process is a lot of exploring, trying things out,” Fiehn says. “The majority of stuff we bring in just doesn’t work, and the long development time gives us the flexibility to acknowledge that.”
“Every two years we start out thinking, We’ll be ahead of the game this time. And then inevitably it’s a race to the finish,” observes Myers. The new piece, for instance, grew out of a shared reading of Flaubert’s encyclopedic novel Bouvard and Pécuchet. While Cupola Bobber worked for months on the general idea of archival material, it was only three months ago that The Field, the Mantel’s present form began to take shape.
The pair’s characteristic layering of homespun materials and high and low cultural references has led to thrilling moments onstage, from dueling monologues delivered from treadmills in Petitmal (2005) to Myers’s exuberant declaration, “I’m a beautiful storm” as he wandered engulfed in a large tarp at the conclusion of Way Out West, the Sea Whispered Me (2009). The mixture of rigor and originality found in its work has attracted international attention; Way Out West toured the U.K., while the new performance originated in a commission from Germany.
Certain hallmarks unite the disparate Cupola Bobber projects. Physical endurance, for one: In Way Out West, the slighter Fiehn supported Myers’s weight for long periods; an extended portion of The Field, the Mantel has both running circuits around the studio. “Putting your body in a semi-exhausted or emergency state,” says Myers, “allows more connection with the audience. And we try to show that perseverance or struggle can be beautiful.”
A skewed sense of humor also animates much of the work. “We take humor seriously,” says Fiehn, who performs the Groucho Marx standard “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” during the new piece. “You watch the Marx Brothers performing and it looks like they’re having so much fun together. We like that idea.”
“It’s like they’re goofing off on two levels: They’re doing this goofy thing, and then they’re playing within its structure. That virtuosity is something I’m really attracted to,” Myers adds.
Both Nebraska native Myers and western New Yorker Fiehn have played integral roles in Chicago’s performance scene outside their partnership. Myers memorably portrayed AC/DC singer Bon Scott for now-dormant troupe Lucky Pierre in 2007; Fiehn works with Matthew Goulish and Lin Hixson, late of Cupola Bobber model Goat Island, in the group Every house has a door. Regrettably, though, The Field, the Mantel offers a last chance to see them perform as Chicagoans; Myers moves to New York in May, and Fiehn plans to follow later in the year. Still, both have warm feelings for Cupola Bobber’s birthplace—“I love it here,” Fiehn says, and Myers concurs that “Chicago’s been great”—and they’re likely to find an expectant audience any time they return.
The Field, the Mantel opens Thursday 31.