Noble Intent

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With all the theatergoing I do, I sometimes come across shows that I feel, even before I see them that I have to, must, like them, otherwise I’m bottom-feeding pond scum.  Itsoseng, currently playing as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s stellar World Stage series, about bitter disillusionment in post-apartheid South Africa, written and performed by an extraordinary hyphenate Omphile Molusi, is one of them.  The War with the Newts (Mr. Povondra’s Dream), Next Theatre Company‘s world premiere adaptation of Czech writer Karel Capek’s 1936 short story about the rise of a salamander species,  initially exploited and enslaved by human beings, to world domination, is another one.  Both, however, left me uncomfortably cold and unengaged.

I think I know why with Newts.  Capek’s story is so timely given current headlines around the emergence of ultra-nationalist ideologies in countries worldwide, environmental irresponsibility (exhibit A:  BP spill), and political welterweight boxing among governments – themes that Capek touches on and, at times, resonantly illuminate.  However, Jason Loewith’s (who also directed the play) and Justin DM. Palmer’s adaptation contains so much circuitous hooey that the material isn’t allowed to connect directly with the viewers.  I think the subtitle of the play – Mr. Povondra’s Dream- gives us a clue.  Mr. Povondra is the butler of the wealthy Czech industrialist GH Brody who funds the use of the newts for cheap labor when their discoverer, Captain Van Toch, knocks at Brody’s door randomly one day and Povondra fatefully opens it.  Povondra then thinks that he is responsible for setting events into motion.  But is he?  And is the rise of the newts real or a figment of Povondra’s imagination?  Loewith and Palmer work very hard to create a dreamy, otherworldly, expressionistic world, which may or may not be happening in Povondra’s imagination, as if having a species of salamanders conquer the human race is so far-fetched you can’t create drama out of the absurdity.  Well, the premise is far-fetched, for sure, but so is The Dark Knight.  It’s called suspension of disbelief, right?  I think the play would have worked much better if everyone involved treated the war with the newts as a real possibility.

I’m also puzzled by some of Loewith’s directorial decisions.  I’m not sure what the point is of a cabaret-style song number for Povondra’s wife in the first act; it comes off more America’s Got Talent than von Sternberg-Dietrich, and doesn’t really advance the plot.  I’m surprised that the story of the social and economic rise of the newts is read as an academic paper by a professor during intermission, when most of the audience is happily skipping around the Loyola theater lobby, thereby missing a lot of contextual information.  Shouldn’t this have been incorporated better in the play (maybe if that cabaret scene was bagged…) ?  And if you’re going to depict the newts live instead of leaving them to the viewers’ imaginations (which may have been better-advised), why use Do-It-Yourself looking, Home Ec-type, minimalist puppets (designed by Michael Montenegro) in one perplexing scene?  Mike Tutaj’s projections of news headlines are both wonderfully evocative of the period and effectively annotate the narrative.  The cast throw themselves energetically into the material, and in the case of the usually marvelous Steve Pickering, a little too energetically.

I’m more baffled by my reaction to Itsoseng.  A hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of years back, Omphile Molusi draws on autobiographical events in the poor township he grew up in, Itsoseng, to paint the disappointing life in Mandela-ruled South Africa vividly, angrily, and poignantly.  One-performer shows are difficult, and more so if it tackles material so emotionally draining as this, so my warmest, most respectful kudos go out to Molusi.  He talks about the lingering joblessness, the collective inertia, the tragic story of the girl he loved who became a prostitute to survive and then died – post-apartheid South Africa emotionally personalized.  This should have been great theater, I think, but my mind wandered and my heart remained unmoved.  I think part of the reason is that there are mystifying shifts in tone throughout the play.  Molusi first recounts events jauntily, sometimes casually, at times comically, even if they’re events with serious emotional reverberations, and then switches to sadness, defiance, and anger mid-scene.  I think if the emotional markers are more clearly delineated, then I would  have taken the journey with him. I also think Molusi play his emotions very much underneath the surface, in an almost too laidback manner, when the stories he tells are incendiary and devastating.  I need more emotional pull from him.  Itsoseng is a noble, dignified, relevant play,  but sometimes, in the theater, you need more than these three to make important topics, such as those Molusi discusses, more dramatically potent.

Itsoseng is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Avenue while The War with the Newts is at the Mullady Theater on the Loyola University campus, 6525 N. Sheridan Road, instead of at it’s usual Evanston digs.   Both close this Sunday, June 20.

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