Thursday, February 12, 2009

True West/Topdog/Underdog

I don't know if it was simply a misunderstanding on my part or some late stage decision making on their part (hey, it's not uncommon at ATC), but up until about a week or two before ATC and Congo Square's collaboration on True West and topdog/underdog opened, I was under the impression that four different versions of each show would be running in rep: a black cast, a white cast, and two separate interracial casts. It's an extremely audacious and foolhardy idea, which is part of the reason I was so all 'bout it. It turns out the reality of the situation is a much more feasible two versions per show -- traditional and inverted race. After taking in both of the racially inverted versions, I wish two things: 1) that I had been able to see the traditional casts, and 2) that ATC and Congo Square had gone balls to the wall with at least one interracial version of each show.

I wish the first simply because it would be nice to have some point of reference as to how each director worked with or past the idea of race in each show and the second to have some point of reference as to how each script can work with or past the idea of race, because this is really the sort of experiment that can only truly succeed through comparison and contrast.

Within isolation, True West, the less racially driven of the two scripts, becomes the more racially self-aware of the two productions. Director PJ Paparelli, embracing the change, allows Anthony Irons to use the character of Lee to transform Shepard's heatstroke surrealism into country-fried ghetto. It's a transformation that is astonishingly seamless and Irons nails it to great effect. The unfortunate result is the highlighting of the evening's lack of a sense of purpose. Once we settle into the fact of the racial switch (and Irons allows his white hot repartee to lose a little steam), that dreaded three letter word seems to loom over the room: why? And I'm not trying to reason the need here. I hate that question more than most artists I know, so it doesn't take much for me to forgo it, but I'm stuck on True West.

It'd be one thing if the answer were a simple making this play equally effective with color-blind casting (this is the case with topdog, which is hamstrung by an entirely different matter, but more on that in a bit). I'd have been cool with that, but Paparelli's direction is most definitely aware that the race of these characters is not the race as written. But any underlying racial relevance that Paparelli finds in Shepard is impotent if even intentional, resulting in show that is standard on all counts as it announces that, look, Sam Shepard can be performed black, too! Fair enough, but Shepard's not the biggest hurdle if that's the gig. Pull the same trick with Noel Coward and maybe I'll look twice.

topdog/underdog, on the other hand, should have been a knockout. Director Derrick Sanders blows past the gimmick to focus on the work at hand. It's a true testament to Sanders' ability that I stuck around for the second act, because he's being sabotaged something fierce by Matthew Brumlow, whose Lincoln is disgracefully performative. In a role that hinges on internal conflict, Brumlow turns in an impressionistic Marlon Brando caricature straight out of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. This is the type of performance so calculated that you could set your watch by each flick of the nose, each head tilt, each jaw clench. And Sanders and Stephen Louis Grush as the rage against the wind Booth do everything in their power to maintain a strong foundation, but this is a two-hander; it's all or nothing. And while there is so much, so much promise here, it's all for naught in the presence of Brumlow's black hole Lincoln.

Which, looking back, is the biggest reason I wish they had gone with the eight show repertory. Sure, the audacity of it all is enticing, but as I'm going over the permutations in my program, the possibility comes up of a Derrick Sanders-directed topdog/underdog starring Anthony Irons and Stephen Louis Grush. And that would have fucking rocked. That would have made the experiment worthwhile. A-game work with disregard to race: To me, that's a good enough 'why?' for the idea -- but I need it in each show rather than spread too thin across the both.


Time for a little post-opening Handcuffs review round-up! But before I stroll into that, a few of my very own thoughts: based on the immediate response I've been part and partial to, this may be the type of show that gives an idea of what the other side looks like in all of these 'dwindling arts media coverage' conversations. Between critics no-showing (a certain publication twice in one weekend!) and other publications generally paying no nevermind, we had a whopping one traditional arts media outlet show up on opening weekend (although, if I had to pick only one to have, it'd be Time Out). On the flip side, we already have two in-depth alternative coverage reviews, another brief mention, and a fourth still potentially to come. Now, I understand the reasoning behind this: we're talking about an obscure experimental play by an obscure absurdist playwright being produced as a free show by a young company in a brand new, non-traditional space. If I were an arts editor, it wouldn't be the top of my list, either; you gotta go with the choices likely to fall in line with the largest swath of your readers, and it's easier to err on the side of normal. Although, looking at the astounding amount of unstellar reviews that normal rendered this week alone in the Reader, I have to wonder at its efficacy.

Handcuffs is going to thrive on the alternatives. Blogs, word of mouth, the fringe of not only Chicago theatre, but Chicago arts will be the glut of the reasons for this show's success. I fully expect a slow second weekend followed by an explosive end of the run as the grapevine machine works its magic. (I mention this for three reasons: 1. If you're still deciding when to come, this weekend might be a good time. 2. If you aren't coming until later, you better make sure you've already got your reservation. 3. Pure egotism.)

Now, to let some other people sell it: Piatt mostly enjoyed the show, and while his complaints are understandable -- these are some divisive devices we're employing -- I do feel compelled to point out that the pregame prison-dungeon hoo-ha is courtesy Arrabal. Nathan gets rode a little hard for ideas he followed through on rather than devised. Also in the review is a comparison that caught me off guard in the most positive way:

"Still, this grotesque spectacle in miniature is in many ways a smaller but ballsier and more confidently acted companion piece to last year’s monstrous Henry Darger installation play As Told by the Vivian Girls."

Vivian Girls was my absolute favorite show of 2008 and to warrant a comparison that positive makes me smile all over. It also, mehopes, opens a window of reason for anyone still on the fence about Handcuffs to go ahead and make that reservation. It's a helluva compliment.

All kinds of good words abound from Don and Francis, as well, particularly these choice bits to sum up exactly why people are spreading the good word:

"Given that And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers premiered in 1969, it's not a leap to assume the play contains a fair amount of both overt sexuality and revolutionary political screed. If you were to make those assumptions, you'd be right on the money with this RBP production.What you might not expect are the solid performances at a FREE show, the excellent space design, the highly creative lighting effects, awesome sound design, and the imaginative and inspired staging choices." - Don Hall

"For me, this production is what makes the Chicago storefront scene explosive: staged for hardly any money, not expecting to make any (the play is free with suggested donations), comprised of innovative, can-do directorial fervor, bravely naked (both literally and emotionally) acting, and yes, challenging, material that will provoke a variety of reactions from the audience, from repulsion, attraction, discomfort, admiration, inspiration." - Francis Sadac

We've got a verified somethin' on our hands, and whatever else you might be compelled to call it (perhaps an "environmentally tricked-out new clusterfuck staging", one of my favorite descriptions of any show I've ever worked on), it's somethin' special. And somethin' special you need reservations for, so pick up that phone!


Now that the show is open, my theatregoing is slowing itself to matinees and off-nights, but I'm making the best due I can: this week is Chicago Dramatists' How I Became An Interesting Person on Sunday, Goodman's Desire Under The Elms on Tuesday, and About Face's Stupid Kids on Wednesday. Maybe I'll see you there! Or, even better, at Handcuffs! Rock and roll, darlings.


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