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A Matter of Time—
The 2005–2006 Theater Season
John Stevel Paul

Playwrights are time shapers. A plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end, observed Aristotle. Nothing logically can precede its beginning. That is obvious, or is it? Who decides where the beginning is? Where does the story of Oedipus begin? On the day Apollo’s priest came to deliver the word to Laius of Thebes that his son born of Jocasta would murder him? On the occasion of the child’s birth? At the dinner in Corinth where the drunk shouts out that the prince is not his parents’ natural son? At the junction of the three roads where the young man unknowingly meets his father Laius, or later, outside of Thebes, when he confronts the riddling Sphinx? Sophocles, the great Athenian tragedian, begins with Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon returning from Delphi with the oracle’s explanation for the plague wracking Thebes—the city is polluted with unavenged blood and the polluter must be found and forced out.

“In those days,” begin the singing story-tellers in Walt Wangerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow, and the audience is pulled off, somewhere back in or out of time. In these days, these February days of 2006, Randy Courts and Mark St. Germain’s musical made its New York debut. Not exactly Broadway, though the West End Theatre is only a few blocks west in the ‘eighties. The Prospect Theater Company, a vivacious young group, performs in half of a neo-Gothic church—the top half! After climbing up and up we entered into the performance space onto a floor which divides the apse into two halves, bottom and top where we watched the play on the night of February 11. It was the night before the fiercest blizzard in the city’s history, but the opening song,“A Dream Away,” whisked us to a place away from our time, place, and weather.

In those days, “the world was round as it is today,” and much was the same except that the animals could speak and sing. In those days, Chauntecleer the rooster ruled his roost of hens and chickens and other barnyard denizens: a weasel named John Wesley, Tick Tock the ant, a Widow Mouse and her children, Lord Russell the fox, a rat, a mosquito, a deer, and the bluesy Mundo Cani dog, Chauntecleer’s closest compatriot.

There is order here (a pecking order, if you will), but Chauntecleer rules over so many peculiar subjects that Courts and St. Germain have some difficulty in the early scenes sorting it all out for an audience trying to trace who’s who. About midway through the first act, the spine of the play emerges as Chauntecleer takes to wife the beautiful and mysteriously sad Pertelote. Now the barnyard-kingdom has a queen for its king and, soon enough, three princelings emerge from their eggs to complete the royal family. It’s too perfect to last. The dream turns all too soon into a nightmare.

Just like today, there is Good in Chauntecleer’s world, and there is Evil. In those days, Evil was named Wyrm and was imprisoned underground. One day Wyrm sired a son named Cockatrice who would become Chauntecleer’s imperial rival. And one day Cockatrice, at the head of an army of serpents called basilisks, marches against Chauntecleer’s doughty forces. There is extended armed conflict in which the Good takes heavy losses, Chauntecleer and Cockatrice fight bloody claw to claw, and the lovable Mundo Cani loses his life in a desperate assault on Wyrm. In the end Good triumphs and Evil loses the battle, though, we suspect, not the war.

The seventeen member Prospect Theater company performed with the verve we would expect from a collegiate group. But director Cara Reichel was working with New York actors, many of them members of Actors Equity, and, young as they were, their talent and technique allows us to think that this show might someday satisfy in the way that The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast have. There is wonderful music in this score by Randy Courts including: “A Dream Away” for the opening,“Remember This Day” for the wedding of Pertelote and Chauntecleer, and the animals’ anthem “New Harmony” (a tribute to the New Harmony play nursery, in Indiana, where this musical was hatched). The dancers’ execution of Jessica Hendricks’s vigorous choreography threatened to bring down the house, and did once. It takes nerve to put that much movement into that small a space!

Cramming Walt Wangerin’s universe into this tiny theater was no easy task, but designer Paulo Sexias provided a quite workable multi-leveled set topped by a barn that seemed to twist and fly like Dorothy’s farmhouse and a rotating sphere that marked the turning of the seasons. Even a large cast has trouble covering the many characters in the story and the costumes did not help the actors’ doubling as they needed to. The most strikingly theatrical element was the brilliant use of hand puppets for the baby chicks and mice. These were not Muppets but elegant wire sculptures wound around the fingers and palms of the actors whose skill and imagination transformed the wire into infant animals.

The trio of actors at the center of this fantasy, Brian Munn (Chauntecleer), Vanessa June Marshall (Pertelote), and Micah Bucey (Cockatrice) grabbed and gripped us heart, mind, and strength for much of the evening. On the other hand, while you can give Evil a name like “Wyrm,” it’s very hard to give it a shape and local habitation on stage. The Prospect Theater Company failed to conjure Evil.

Not so sadness. There was a deep, pervasive sadness that night lurking, mysteriously, just beneath even the happiest dancing and singing. Was the sadness more present for those of us who know the end of The Book of the Dun Cow or for those of us who are closer to the end of our lives than to the beginning?

There was sadness too in a very satisfying production of David Lindsey-Abaire’s new play Rabbit Hole. Daniel Sullivan directed Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) and Broadway veteran Tyne Daly in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production at the handsomely refurbished Biltmore Theater on Forty-Fifth Street. There is nothing mysterious about the origin of the sadness in the lives of Becca and Howie. Their two-year-old Danny chased the family dog into the street and was fatally struck by a passing car. Now, eight months later, the child’s parents, aunt, and grandmother seek to salve their present pain by searching times past and cataloguing the possibilities for fault and blame. “If I hadn’t picked up the phone and taken my eyes off him”; “if I hadn’t called you that day for a perfectly stupid reason”; “if I hadn’t given him a puppy in the first place,” etc. It is an exercise that stifles every bit of vitality in the house, and it is rehearsed with painful irony in the presence of Becca’s very pregnant sister.

As the tough-minded Becca represses her pain deeper and deeper, the gulf between her and Howie widens and it appears less and less likely that they can find a way back to one another. Neither one is able to bear the material reminders of the child. They put their house on the market. One day, the teen-aged driver of the car that struck Danny sees the For Sale sign and walks into the open house. A decent kid, he has come to confess that he might have been going two miles per hour over the speed limit. Becca listens to his heart-breaking confession and responds maternally. She brings him cookies and asks him to tell her about his life. As he tells her about his prom, she realizes that she will never be able to share her own son’s childhood experiences. Her emotional dam breaks, and she sobs openly and uncontrollably. Now there is hope.

Lindsay-Abaire will give audiences what they want. In a matter of time, Howie and Becca will find their way back to one another. To do it, they will have to manage time, they will have to pull themselves out of the past and keep from projecting themselves into a non-navigable future.  How will they do that excruciatingly difficult thing? How will they find their way in a present rendered dark by the absence of their child? They will do it through ritual. They will finally accept an invitation from their once dear companions to the birthday party of their child, of one of Danny’s friends. They will go to a toy store; they will pick out a present for Danny’s friend; they will bring the gift home; they will wrap it; they will take the gift to the party; they will come home. And then? Then is too far into the future. Then, they will ritualize their way back through the rabbit hole and towards one another.

Like any revival, the production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Eugene O’Neill recalls the time and circumstances of the original production in 1979. In that year, the team of Harold Prince and Eugene and Fran Lee constructed just about as gigantic a production as a Broadway theater could hold. On stage was a scenic image of the Industrial Revolution as alienating and disturbing as the age itself: grimy, screechy, stifling, its walls constructed of what looked like corrugated metal holding up an iron superstructure. Why did we love it so? Because it was phenomenal. (And because it starred Angela Lansberry and Len Cariou.) Yet, the story actually played out on a little revolving platform no larger than twenty by twenty feet and plopped in the middle of the hulking, rusty factory of a set.

Englishman John Doyle directed and designed the present Sweeney Todd in an acting space not much larger than the revolving platform in the original. Just behind the platform is a ladder of shelves twenty feet high loaded with cultural curios from nineteenth-century London culture. The dominating image on the platform is a black coffin. And therein lies a tale.

As the story goes, Sweeney Todd was an ordinary barber who turns maniacal when his wife is accosted and raped by a predatory judge. He seeks revenge first on the judge and then on the whole world of men by whom he believes he has been wronged. He is aided by a Mrs. Lovett, a penurious maker of meat pies come lately on hard times. The two hatch a plot whereby Todd will pursue his murderous project by grinding and disposing of the corpses, stuffing them into Mrs. Lovett’s pies. The partners in crime croon their plans in one of Sondheim’s most ingenious songs, “A Little Priest.”

In the spirit of the Industrial Revolution, Sweeney invents a machine whereby he will slit his customers’ throats as they sit in his barber chair awaiting a shave and a haircut. With a swift adjustment the back of the chair drops to the floor and the customer slides down with a sickening thud through a trap door and into a basement meat chopper. This became the central gesture of the play.

Doyle’s production is justly renowned for his elimination of that staple of the Broadway musical, the pit orchestra. The accompaniment is, instead, played from the stage by the actors themselves. The orchestrations have been reduced somewhat, by Sarah Travis, but they are full enough to be effective. The stars of the show, Patti Lupone (Lovett) and Michael Cerveris (Sweeney), play tuba and guitar respectively, and all the actors take up musical instruments at one time or another and play them phenomenally well. (We met one of the actors at the stage door later and asked her whether they had been cast because of their musical ability. “No,” she assured us, “most of us played a little before. I played clarinet in high school.”)

Doyle has dispatched more than the pit musicians. He’s gotten rid of the barber chair. The actors moved very little, and at times the whole thing felt less like Grand Guignol than Gothic cabaret. Doyle’s patron saint is Bertolt Brecht and his Sweeney Todd is not so much a revival as a distillation of the original. What we get is the essence of Sondheim and Wheeler’s musical. The violence is more purely violent; the malice more purely malicious; the evil is purely, jarringly Evil. This Sweeney Todd is not so much post-Industrial Revolution as he is post-Oklahoma City and Columbine.

Perhaps because of this macabre purity, this show is still beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than its 1979 ancestor. More than a few ecstatic spectators had tears in their eyes as they crashed their hands together in sustained appreciation for the marvelous performers. Yet I wondered how many of them really knew what exactly they were applauding. That big set and those realistic props told a story in 1979 with which this abstract expressionist version dispensed.

And, speaking of applause… about three quarters of the audience actually trudged through twenty or so inches of snow (talk about “The Great White Way”) to see the Sunday matinee of John Patrick Shanley’s justly lauded Doubt. When they emerged onto the stage, the actors might well have been startled to see so many determined theater-goers in the seats when they might have expected to have a snow day off. At the end of the performance, the actors applauded the audience, not in a quaint gesture, but in a salute to those of us whose passion for live theater could not be dampened even by the historic winter storm.

In Chicago,it has been a year of noting the passage of time. The Steppenwolf Theatre has been producing plays for thirty years. We were never at their Highland Park church-basement venue of origin in 1976. We caught up with them a couple of years later when their break-out production of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead moved to the Apollo Theater on Lincoln Avenue and their subscription series opened up at the Jane Addams Hull House Center on Broadway near Belmont. We followed them when they moved to a former dairy on Halsted Street and—in a long rectangular room seating 211 people and about the same number of lighting instruments under twelve-foot ceilings—thrilled to the best productions in their history.

In 1991, Steppenwolf moved to its new theater complex, further south on Halsted, where they have become an institution with multiple theater spaces, their own magazine, and their own parking garage! Fortunately, we note on the masthead of their magazine, three members of the original ensemble, Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and Gary Sinise, serve on an “Executive Artistic Board” to keep in sight the original vision of the ensemble formed so many years ago. There has been a new artistic team in place for several years now. Martha Lavey has served as artistic director since 1995. With only occasional residencies by ensemble members such as John Malkovich, John Mahoney, and Laurie Metcalf, the acting company has been anchored by Amy Morton and Tracy Letts.

The acting may not be as consistently searing as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, and the intimacy of their earlier spaces is gone, >but the most interesting new work in Chicago is still to be found underneath the Steppenwolf marquee. Lavey has provided coveted opportunities for emerging playwrights to develop in the most supportive theatrical circumstances. The work of two of these playwrights, Bruce Norris and Richard Greenberg, are cases in point. Like other productions in New York and Chicago this year, these playwrights have become conscious shapers of time.

Norris fits comfortably into the Steppenwolf tradition. He lands his punches, tragic and ludicrous, with the regularity of a champion boxer. In an epoch of dysfunctional families, it would be hard to imagine a more destructive family than the one Norris has created for The Pain and The Itch. At the center is a nebbish house husband, Clay, under continuing suspicion of sexually abusing his seven-year-old daughter, and his philandering wife, Kelly. They are quite wealthy, and their home and furnishings reflect their affluence. Predictably, the action, alternately hilarious and excruciating, is set at the time of a Thanksgiving dinner as the family is about to sit down to turkey dinner with Clay’s meddling mother, his brutish M.D. brother, and the brother’s trophy girlfriend, a drunken Russian floozy.

What makes The Pain and The Itch more interesting than a dramatized version of “The Addams Family,” is Norris’s introductory story-telling of a competition among story-tellers reminiscent of Six Characters in Search of an Author. Which of the characters will prevail as the story teller? Whose version of the story will carry the day? At the beginning of the play, a Mr. Hadid, dressed in a white linen suit and speaking with an African accent, sits in the family living room. He has come to inquire about the recent death of his wife, who worked as a domestic employee in Clay and Kelly’s home. Members of the family seek, in turn, to comfort the grieving man, but their consolations are lost in description of their own problems told from their own perspectives. As they speak, their renditions of the corporate story come alive in flashback with Mr. Hadid sitting as a spectator in the middle of them.

There are as many plot lines as there are characters. Norris parcels them out to us in moments, keeping firm control of the pace of revelation until, at the end, the final incredible picture becomes clear. As for the cause of Mrs. Hadid’s death, the family can barely remember the relatively unimportant incident on that tumultuous Thanksgiving Day. They suspected Mr. Hadid’s wife of petty theft; they called the police who detained and kept her from taking a critical dose of medicine, and she died. Hadid wants only an apology, an expression of regret. Sensing his frustration, the family offers him money as if to make up for his loss. But now, no amount will satisfy him.

Bruce Norris alternates scenes from the present and the past in The Pain and the Itch. In Prolepsis, one of two plays Steppenwolf produced under the title A Well-Appointed Room, Richard Greenberg starts his characters on either end of a time continuum and moves them toward a middle where they barely will recognize each other. The play is a meditation on time itself, on our very notions of past, present, and future.

Mark will serve as our story-teller in this charming if conventional love story. He is an accountant and not the romantic type; a girl seeking shelter from a rain storm would be just that. But this girl is Gretchen, that one girl in a million. She is as soulful as he is cerebral—his perfect match. Mark invites us into a story that he promises will have a happy ending.

Mark and Gretchen marry and look for an apartment. They find a well-appointed room with lots of light and a view of the World Trade Center and begin a promising life together. Within a matter of months Gretchen is pregnant and the Twin Towers collapse into piles of rubble within their view. Gretchen feels the pain of 9/11 more deeply than Mark, but she would. Nothing seems out of order except that everything is out of order. Those of us who believe that everything changed on September 11, 2001, recognized the rip in the fabric of Gretchen’s grip on reality.

Gretchen becomes more and more distant. All Mark knows is that she takes long walks at night alone. When she is away, Mark’s narration ceases, to be resumed only when she returns. One rainy night we observe Gretchen’>s meeting with a bar-fly, a grisly former “arts journalist” with a very dark view of the future. His predictions unsettle Gretchen, and she returns to the apartment with a bad case of prolepsis, the title of the play; that is, the assumption of a future development as if it had already happened.

Gretchens consciousness is now informed by the events of her entire life, including the future death of their son in the flower of young manhood. It will be a devastating loss for both of them. But, even more devastating is that the one-time couple will become two individuals living their lives in different directions. While his wife lives out of the future, Mark lives each day into the future. Gretchen is appalled by Mark’s open-armed embrace of each new day; Mark is hopeful that what he perceives as Gretchen’s insanity will pass, perhaps when the baby is born. Remember, he promised us a happy ending, and he’s sticking to it. Gretchen returns to the stage sobbing, looking at the new-born in her arms as if the child is already dead. Mark protests that her tears are tears of joy. We think we know differently.

Across town, the Goodman Theatre has been mounting the first major retrospective of stage works by David Mamet, who wrote the majority of his plays for premieres in Chicago theaters in the 1970s and 1980s. The Goodman Festival bookended one of Mamet’s latest works for the stage, Romance (2005), with one of the earliest, A Life in the Theatre (1977). In between have been three evenings of one-acts.

A Life in the Theatre opened in Chicago at the Goodman’s tiny bricked-walled Stage Two across the lobby from the main stage. Downstage were a couple of chairs and a makeup table. Upstage was a curtain. When the actors John and Robert performed for an audience, the upstage curtains were drawn and the actors faced away from the audience. For the offstage scenes, the actors played downstage toward the actual paying customers. It was an elegantly simple solution allowing the actors to command the stage.

In the new Albert Theatre at the Goodman Theatre complex at the corner of Dearborn and Randolph, the two actors are dwarfed by towering rigging and lighting battens suggesting the stage of a huge Broadway touring house like the Cadillac Palace just down Randolph from the Goodman. The play itself is about the trajectory of two actors’ lives, one a generation older than the other. On stage, they play a series of scenes from plays of many genres: a war play, a costume drama, a doctor play, a lawyer play, a melodrama, a comedy.

Offstage, they live out the phases of their dynamic relationship: mentor-protégé, rising star-falling star, wooer-wooed, dinner companions, confidantes, critics, but never quite friends. The actors here, David Darlow and Matt Schwader, direct us to countless insights into the triangle that includes Robert, John, and the Theatre. It is a hilarious, poignant, and tragic evening.

In the published version of A Life in the Theatre, David Mamet quotes Rudyard Kipling on actors, from “Epitaphs of the War 1914–18”:

We counterfeited once for your disport
Men’ s joy and sorrow: but our day has passed.
We pray you pardon all where we fell short
Seeing we were your servants to this last.

Darlow and Schwader find and communicate an extraordinary amount of men’s joy and sorrow, and we feel genuine sadness that their day has passed.

As we drove Columbus Avenue toward the Near North Side on a recent evening, we looked to our left to see that the old Goodman Theatre had been completely leveled to make room for a new wing of the Art Institute. The old theater debuted in 1925. We had seen a good many wonderful plays there, too many to list here. It boasted the last remaining half-spherical plaster cyclorama. But its day had passed. And, the theater pulls us ever into the future with its eye on the next production rather than the last.

John Steven Paul is Director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts and Professor of Theatre at Valparaiso University. He will direct Gilbert & Sullivan’ s The Pirates of Penzance for the University Theatre in the Fall of 2006.

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