Sometimes going to the theater in this arts-savvy town requires having no expectations whatsoever. Over the weekend I went to two different plays with two different mindsets and came out disappointed from one, and surprisingly joyous from the other. I had been a huge admirer of The Right Brain Project’s savvy and ambition through the years and I thought its productions of And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers and The Modern Prometheus were two of the best examples of the formidable can-do attitude of Chicago’s storefront theater scene. So when I heard it was mounting Peter Weiss’ famously challenging play Marat/Sade (my dear blog readers you can look up the official, lengthier title on your own, which also tells you in essence what the show is about), I thought I couldn’t miss this one (I sat out some of its confounding recent new work outings). I would put The Right Brain Project in the very shortlist of theaters which I though could wrestle Marat/Sade to the ground and come up with something truly interesting. However, expectations are indeed meant to be shattered. On the other hand, I had no expectation going into Filament Theatre Ensemble’s Hank Williams: Lost Highway, the Chicago premiere of Randal Myler and Mark Harelik’s musical biography of the country music legend. All I hoped for was getting through 2 hours of country-western music (and I figured if Gwyneth Paltrow could embrace her inner Reba, so could I). So I was wonderfully surprised when I came out of Hank Williams: Lost Highway humming “Jambalaya” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, the effect of a truly mesmerizing, enjoyable evening at the theater.
The Right Brain Project has always had chutzpah by the boatloads. Choosing to stage this talky Peter Weiss play, which tackles weighty themes such as the disillusionment of revolution and the impotence of effecting true change while set in a mental hospital with the Marquis de Sade as one of its inmates, is pretty impressive. And director Nathan Robbel’s production of Marat/Sade is brazen, grandly ambitious, epic in conception: there are more actors (29) than audience members (a total of 24 seats are available in the theater) for one. There are intriguing staging approaches, for example three nuns meeting you with a glass of water as you enter the theater or a bare foot impishly peeking out of the curtain before the show starts, for another. There is live music played by a four person band and sang by a four person chorus who all play inmates of the Charenton asylum as well. There is brilliantly quirky costume design by David Wesley Mitchell, which evokes the play’s French revolution time period but also comes off excitingly contemporary.
But there are questionable artistic choices as well and most of them boil down to the acting. I’m not sure why Robbel and the usually interesting Vincent L. Lonergan choose to play de Sade in an indifferent manner. I mean Lonergan comes across as a genial grandfather, not a sexually combustible cynic. I expect more malevolence, hedonism, and passion to come through, especially since de Sade is supposed to be the counterpoint to Marat’s principled but disillusioned revolutionary (Chad Gowen Spear’s performance is unhelpfully one-note). Without a compelling de Sade, the talky arguments just become, well, talkier and wear the audience down. I think the problematic acting styles extend to the whole ensemble – the chorus performs the pointedly acidic Brechtian-like songs like they’re at the back room of Davenport’s cabaret bar, which waters down their impact; and most of the ensemble performances come off either amateurish or disinterested. I mean they’re all supposed to be inmates of an asylum, not random people dragged from the el stop nearby to perform in the play without rehearsal. Because that’s how many of them come across. There are exceptions: Greg Wenz is a comically riveting Herald and Dennis Newport is terrific as the broken down priest, Jacques Roux. But the whole enterprise runs out of steam so that the final scene of violence becomes more mechanical than shocking.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway
There are no acting problems in Hank Williams: Lost Highway. As a matter of fact, it is a mighty fine acting ensemble, anchored by a beautifully-wrought, dazzling star performance from Peter Oyloe, who I consider to be one of Chicago’s most interesting and talented young actors. Oyloe submerges himself in Hank Williams, and nicely calibrates the insecure boy within the musical superstar grappling with demons. And he sings marvelously and generously – not mimicking Williams at all, but clearly communicating the singer’s passion and commitment to the emotions both conjured by and contained in his music (it’s a performance that reminds me of Joaquin Phoenix’s equally impersonation-free Johnny Cash in Walk the Line). The entire ensemble is up to Oyloe’s game, with special props to Gerald Richardson as William’s mentor Tee-Tot, whose charismatic presence and rich baritone make songs like “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and “This is the Way I Do” showtopping.
My main reservations about the show really lie in Myler and Harelik’s book. I think the narrative doesn’t delve deep enough into Williams’ psyche (like why he began drinking at an early age, even before he was famous and needed liquor to cope with the demands of stardom). I feel like the book scenes rush by so that the next musical number can take place. I also don’t think Myler and Harelik fully explain Tee-Tot’s hovering presence in some of the scenes – is he there to remind Hank of where he came from? Is he Hank’s conscience? Or is he there to give Hank the inner strength to cope with the conflicts between his ever-increasing fame and his family life? But directors Julie Ritchey and Omen Sade compensate for the weaknesses of the book by staging the musical numbers energetically and fluidly. When you’re tapping your toes to “I Saw the Light” and marveling at the influential body of work Williams put together, a weak script doesn’t matter as much.