Force of Nature

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mistakes-were-made.jpgIf I were to ever write a memoir of my theatergoing experiences over the years, two of the most memorable nights I would single out would be ones I spent at A Red Orchid Theater‘s tiny, cramped, highly atmospheric theater in Old Town.  In the fall of 2004, I became a passionate fan for life when I saw its unforgettable, unmatchable, cojones-bursting production of Philip Ridley’s already outrageous, not-for-all-tastes, but insanely brilliant The Fastest Clock in the Universe.  Nearly two years later, in the spring of 2006, BFF Camela and I were two of  the fourteen mesmerized audience members, as seventeen actors (yes, there were more people onstage then in the seats) literally sweated their guts out over more than three hours in Eugene Ionesco’s demandingly obtuse, uncompromisingly intellectual Hunger & Thirst, directed by founding ensemble member Michael Shannon.  For me, these two nights signify why Red Orchid is such an essential, irreplaceable part of Chicago’s artistic life – it is a theater company that assumes a theatergoing audience wants to be challenged and provoked, inspired but not pandered to, inflamed but sufficiently educated.  Despite the critical acclaim, and since its productions can, at times, be a little too much even for the most committed, sophisticated theatergoer, I don’t think it has had the commercial success over the years that it deserves to have in this highly competitive, theater-mad town.  As Chris Jones notes though, it seems like the theater’s fortunes are turning up – there are sold-out houses, hissy fits by patrons who couldn’t get a seat, and a lot of deafening buzz about the theater and its season-opener, the world premiere of Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made, starring the now hyphenated Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon.  As a long-time supporter, I am thrilled for the box-office success, but I am even more excited that Red Orchid, the theater, and Michael, the committed theater actor, stayed true to what I love and respect about them – the folks standing in line to see an Academy Award nominee and Hollywood star up close and personal will discover as well (or instead?) a theatrical production that demands as much from its audience as itself, in the Red Orchid tradition.  And that’s a great thing.

Mistakes Were Made is about a frenzied Broadway producer, Felix Artifex, trying to put together his latest production, an epic about the French Revolution from an unknown playwright, to star a hot Hollywood actor, which will be mostly financed by profits from sheep dipping (which, according to the production notes, is a booming industry in the reconstruction of Iraq, as sheep dip tanks are built in villages to enable cleaning of the country’s 12 to 16 million sheep and consequently boost the country’s wool production).  Yeah, I don’t think that description screams “recent Oscar nominee star vehicle”.  It, however, has Red Orchid’s unique sensibility all over it.  It is 105 minutes of an almost-monologue from Shannon madly jumping from one phone call to another (the consistently excellent ensemble member Mierka Gierten performs the role of Felix’s unflappable secretary mostly off-stage and comes out only in the last minutes of the play).  It has a puppet goldfish as an integral part of its meticulously detailed set design.  It has theatrical in-jokes galore (one of my favorites:  Felix recounts his production of The Three Sisters starring the Go-Gos in which Belinda Carlyle playing Masha demanded to get one of Irina’s monologues).  It is subtly political – Felix’s phone conversations with the theater folks are interrupted numerous times by the Italian drivers who are transporting sheep to the dipping tanks and who have been ambushed by Iraqi rebels.  I think it is highly entertaining, and Wright’s dialogue is often biting, juicy, and just down-right funny.  But I’m really interested in the delicate balancing act between art and commerce in putting on a Broadway play (a topic that the theater blogs never seem to run out of something to say about); I’m not really sure that it’s a world that would resonate with every theatergoer.   I find the whole angle regarding the sheep dipping a pretty clever narrative technique on Wright’s part:  theater people are so self-involved and immersed in their tiny, ultimately insignificant, bubble of the world, that when the real world intrudes, with its moral dilemmas, they’re at a loss as to how to act and react.  I don’t think it’s presented clearly enough, though, for those audience members who want straightforward point A to point B narratives.  Mistakes Were Made is by no means a perfect script – I think it can be trimmed by at least ten to fifteen minutes, and I don’t think the subplot about Felix’s attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife is well-developed nor sufficiently complementary to the rest of the play.

But the play is more than the sum of its writing because of Michael Shannon’s gutsy, vanity-less, force-of-nature, emotionally and physically strenous performance as Felix.  Anyone who has seen him only in his Oscar-nommed Revolutionary Road performance, exceptional though it was, is in for a startling time.  He is onstage for the entire one hour and forty five minutes of the play, delivering complicated, breath-stopping dialogue at 110 mph, traversing, both delicately and ferociously, multiple emotional arcs all at the same time.  In less than a dialogue-beat, he moves from cajoling and ego-flattering towards the actor and the playwright, to vitriolic and belligerent towards the playwright’s agent,  to perplexed, out-of-his-element helpless towards the ambushed drivers, to disillusioned and beaten down while talking to the goldfish puppet (yes, you read that right).  He has the burden of persuasively communicating the parts of the conversations we don’t hear through his reactions and his vocal inflections, and does so brilliantly (you can almost visualize the other characters in your head given the way Shannon responds to their comments and questions).  It is a searing, dizzying, pummeling portrait of an imperfect man trying to survive while events spin out of his control.  In the cramped confines of Red Orchid’s 78-seater you see every sweat bead, every saliva shower, every pulsating vein, in Michael’s intense performance, one of the most unforgettable of this theater season.  I’m sure those audience members who are not familiar with Red Orchid’s work but who lined up for some Oscar nominee rubbernecking, got more than they bargained for.  But given the reaction of the folks I brought to see the show with me last week (some of them new to the theater’s work), who were all impressed and amazed, and committed to coming back for future shows, I think it’s a a high-stakes gamble that has paid off magnificently.  

Mistakes Were Made has been extended until October 31 at 1531 N. Wells.  The weekend shows sell out, so get your tickets now for this must-see event of the Chicago fall theater season!

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4 Responses to “Force of Nature”

  1. Tom Sherman Says:

    One of the best plays I’ve seen. A completely involving, emotional roller coaster of a performance. Absolutely worth seeing.

  2. Esther Says:

    I just got a ticket to see this at the Barrow Street Theater in New York next month. I’m so excited!

  3. francis Says:

    Hi Esther! I’m looking forward to hear what you think. It’s a tour de force for Michael, who is a terrific actor, and an even greater person.

  4. Esther Says:

    I loved Mistakes were Made!

    Michael Shannon is amazing. I couldn’t believe how effortlessly he handled all those phone calls, adopting a different tone of voice with each person. Just an incredible range of emotions. And he really had me believing there was someone else on the other end of the line. What a virtuoso performance. And I can’t even imagine how awesome it would have been in an 87-seat theatre. (Barrow Street is 199 seats and it was pretty intimate there.)

    I met him afterward and he was so nice. He asked me where I was from what other shows I was seeing, etc. Just the sweetest, most down-to-earth person. He even drew a little smiley-face picture when he autographed my program! I think I floored him when I told him my name was Esther. ;-)

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