Body Politic Theatre


Body Politic Theatre

The Body Politic Theatre has been with us a long time. Founded 20 years ago in Lincoln Park, back when Lincoln Park was a fringey, sort of dangerous, sort of bohemian kind of neighborhood, the Body Politic was in its own way kind of fringey and bohemian. Once willing to take risks with the likes of Paul Sills, Alan Gross, and even David Mamet, the theater has recently fallen into a kind of mediocrity that is made all the more disheartening by the knowledge of its illustrious past.

Even if you pay no attention to the financial problems and artistic squabbles rumored in the papers, it’s hard not to know that something has gone wrong at the Body Politic. The plays have become safer and safer, the productions less and less adventurous. And the theater has hit its nadir with the current season, which so far (one production was canceled, another postponed) has had all the daring of a heavily censored high school drama club.

There must have been a better way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a company that participated in the big bang of Chicago’s theater scene than the two productions it mounted: Cowardy Custard and The Importance of Being Earnest. The board has chosen to end the season with a pair of plays (performed, mysteriously, in repertory), neither of which, though more daring than either of the earlier offerings, aspires to much more than providing a nice evening out.

Of the two plays, Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye is probably the more significant, if only as evidence of how far the great South African playwright has come since this early, well-crafted, but essentially mechanical and predictable work.

Written in 1966, when Fugard was 34 years old, the play has “early” written all over it. Not only does it lack the subtlety of Fugard’s later works (The Road to Mecca, Master Harold . . . and the Boys, A Lesson From Aloes), but it also lacks their barely suppressed rage. Hello and Goodbye gives no clue that South Africa has any race problem at all.

Instead, Fugard focuses squarely on that universal theme–Mom and Dad: how they mess us up and our ambivalent feelings for them. The play concerns a pair of working-class Afrikaners–an emotional wreck of a boy and his long-estranged sister–who are reunited when the sister returns home in search of her meager inheritance. The two spend the play tearing through boxes of clothes, newspapers, and tools, looking for the money that may or may not be hidden therein, and recalling all their repressed memories about how awful childhood was, what a saint their mother was, and how their bastard of a father drove her to an early grave.

At times Hello and Goodbye works powerfully as a Hallmark Hall of Fame-style family drama. And it would, I suspect, work even better if its direction were stronger. Or rather, if the direction were less pronounced. Director Albert Pertalion seems to favor that heavy-handed style that leaves no doubt in the audience’s mind that we are, indeed, watching an important drama being performed live onstage in a theater. Every few minutes Pertalion asks us to savor yet another important moment in this important play (i.e., Dad’s dead. Beat. Beat. Beat. Sis’s a whore. Beat. Beat. Beat. God, I miss Mom. Beat. Beat. Beat. What a bastard Dad was! I want to be just like him.) As a result the story moves along at such a sluggish pace that though the production clocks in at less than two hours, it seems much longer.

It doesn’t help that Julie Bayer is not always convincing as Hester, the sister who has turned to prostitution to make her living. When she tells her brother–in one of the play’s many attempted moments of devastating self- revelation–“I whore,” she says the word “whore” with such portentous subtext-stuffed emphasis, it’s hard not to wonder if she’s using the word ironically. (Does she really mean that she works in public relations?) Which is not to say that Bayer’s performance is entirely flawed. Her work comes most alive when she’s asked to play big sister to Jeffrey Plunkett’s Johnny. Plunkett, on the other hand, delivers a consistently fine performance as Johnny, and by default, the best moments in the play belong to him.

John Godber’s frothy September in the Rain makes an ironic counterpoint to Fugard’s mildly pretentious piece. Where Hello and Goodbye tries a little too hard to be important and deep and moving, September in the Rain is simply pleasant and mildly amusing.

This play concerns a working-class English couple from Yorkshire who reminisce about their first trip to the seaside resort town of Blackpool some 40 years earlier. Before you can say “flashback” the two change into their younger selves and proceed to walk us through their first holiday, playing all of the characters they meet along the way (a device Godber uses to better effect in his Teechers). We get to hear all about the memorable car trip: the argument, the traffic jam, the beach, and so on. All of which is perfectly charming, if a little like watching a slide show of someone else’s vacation.

What makes the play a little alienating is the way Godber assumes we know Blackpool as well as Chicagoans of a certain age remember Riverview. This play must be a wonderfully evocative trip down memory lane for anyone who grew up, as the playwright did, in northern England. But it’s not the same for those of us who happened to have been born in the American midwest. (Not that I blame Godber; as artistic director of a theater in the city of Hull, he clearly wrote this play for his northern English audience.)

Not everything, of course, is lost in translation. Only the more subtle aspects of the story: the details of Jack and Liz’s character development, the degree to which their lives and choices of amusement (going to the waxworks, having an ice cream, watching an operetta) are like or unlike those of other working-class Yorkshiremen. To make matters worse, these actors never seem entirely convincing as a couple, especially as a couple who have remained together for 40 years. We never see how Cynthia Judge’s Liz, an attractive and friendly woman, would put up with a man as grumpy and withdrawn as John Reeger’s Jack. Nor do we ever understand why a man like Jack, who won’t even hold his wife’s hand in public, would have no embarrassment about crying at The Student Prince.

But perhaps I’m looking too closely at a slight play that was never meant to be more than a divertissement. It is diverting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.