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lookingglass north china loverIt has been quite the busy Chicago fall theater season so far; I saw eight shows over a two week period during the last week of September and the first week of October.  Yes, yes, I say that every year, but 2013 seems to be particularly burdensome, and maybe that’s because the number of plays I’ve seen since the season formally opened in early September that have been disappointing, unsatisfying, or generally leaving me wanting for more has been much higher than on the other years I’ve been writing this blog.  Two of the plays I saw during that crazy theatrical marathon was Lookingglass Theatre’s world premiere of Heidi Stillman’s stage adaptation of Marguerite Duras’  autobiographical novel/screenplay The North China Lover which she also directed,  and Steep Theatre’s North American premiere of Simon Stephens’ Motortown , directed by veteran Stephens interpreter Robin Witt.  Both shows have interesting, unique stories to tell about the scarring, wrenching impact of the past on someone’s present, and both demonstrate a lot of artistic effort and thought.  Unfortunately both plays suffer from flawed playwriting (and in the case of The North China Lover perplexingly lethargic direction), and no amount of heroic effort can make up for that.

The North China Lover is the bigger disappointment for me. I really loved Duras’ hauntingly luminous book The Lover.  And Jean Jacques Annaud’s 1993 film version which starred Jane March and an elegantly smoldering Tony Leung (be still my beating heart!) as, respectively, a 15 year old French girl and her older, soon-to-be-married rich Chinese lover in 1930s colonial Vietnam was so indelibly resonant for the younger me dealing with so much silly yet poignant heartbreak at that time. Duras had a major falling-out with Annaud during filming and was replaced as credited screenwriter; she later published her version of the screenplay in semi-novelistic form which was the material that Stillman adapted for Lookingglass.  In all the works, the story is narrated by the older version of The Girl (Duras), with the events told through the prism of time and hazy recollections.  But unlike the film, in which Jeanne Moreau’s voiceover-only performance of the older Duras, M, was a finely calibrated portrayal of tough regrets, world-weary grit, and everlasting longing, Deanna Dunagan’s performance, although technically flawless as expected (she is one of my theatrical goddesses!) is primarily longing and wistfulness. But how can Stillman ignore the other nuances-the ugly, the yuck, the character-deflating, the confidence-building- when reflecting on the experience of losing your teenage virginity to an older man? I’m pretty confounded by some of the other choices that she makes with the play, both in the writing and in production: the lack of sensuality (in a play about sex and which tackles some of its more extreme forms, from incest to nymphomania, there are very few sex scenes and the ones that are depicted are all directed and performed in an abbreviated, lackluster manner as if Stillman is pressing on a metaphorical fast-forward button); the underwritten characters of The Girl’s brothers (Pierre who dominates her and Paolo who she has sex with, played with characteristic thoughtfulness despite the weak writing by two of Chicago’s most exciting young actors Walter Owen Briggs and JJ Phillips respectively) when they play important parts in driving her into the affair with The Lover; the slowness of the staging which seems so incongruous in telling such a red-hot, full-blooded story, and which can barely contain a central performance from Rae Gray as The Girl (who I admire a lot but who I think is miscast) which is more brittle and fierce than radiant and innocent.  Tim Chiou as The Lover, on the other hand, looks the part.

But I am most surprised in the choice that she made together with Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling to stage the show in a minimalist style, with the barest of props and with little evocation of colonial Saigon. The Lover has such a specific end-of-colonial-Vietnam setting which provides the context for important story points (the racial politics of the time in which the rich Chinese had economic dominance and looked down on the impoverished French colonial overlords can account both for the recklessness of The Lover on embarking on an affair with a French underage girl and the distasteful bargaining between him and The Girl’s family), but neither the physical sets nor the adaptation clearly depict the time and place. The story can be happening in Provence or Iowa and we wouldn’t know it.  And that’s not true for both the book and the film as I know it.  The lack of context, and the lack of teeth, leads to a lost opportunity to come up with a great production for great literary writing.

There are a lot of sharp fangs, on the other hand, in Steep’s production of Motortown, in which Simon Stephens tells the story of a British soldier trying to re-adjust to civilian life after a tour of duty in Basra in a series of vignettes.  Robin Witt’s direction is clipped, fast-paced, and almost impressively cinematic in its jarring flow. The larger-than-life performances are exceptional:  Chris Chmelik as the soldier’s somewhat mentally off-kilter brother/caretaker Lee is impressively melancholy and creepy at the same time, Julia Siple as ex-girlfriend Marley is both sympathetic and edgy, and Ashleigh LaThrop as a petulant, arrogant teenager girl that the soldier encounters meticulously and stunningly inhabits a pivotal role. Joel Reitsma is explosive and riveting as the returning soldier Danny, who believably transitions from an awkward, anchorless man living with his brother at the beginning of the play to a violent, manipulative near-fugitive at the end of it.  But my issue with the play is with Stephen’s writing:  why does Danny transform? What are those experiences in Iraq that scarred him? Unlike the much superior writing in the recent 9 Circles which tells a similar story but with an American soldier as the central character instead, the motivations and triggers are not clear to the audience. Near the end of the play, Danny has a speech haranguing the British citizenry for fighting a war for them that has strongly racist overtones, but the scene feels out-of-place instead of unsetting because we have never seen a racist streak in the character before.  There is also a scene in which Danny encounters a married couple in a hotel who offers to have a threesome with him which comes off as blah instead of dangerous, and which for me doesn’t really advance the narrative (after the previous angry, ferocious scenes, how could he not have beaten the crap out of them?).  Steep’s production is compelling – where else can you see a play with an actor in a body bag lying at your feet for its last half hour?  I just wished the writing was as compelling.

The North China Lover is running at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave., until November 10. Motortown is at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave., until November 9.

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