Organic Theater

I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen the movie Little Caesar, which came out in 1930 and starred Edward G. Robinson as Rico. And I’m certain I never read the novel by William Burnett. But the story of a brutal thug who campaigns to become Chicago’s gangster chieftain is familiar. The same plot has been exploited time and again in TV serials and B-movies. The Untouchables and Scarface come to mind. Yet, just to remind us that this story isn’t entirely fictional, people like Al Capone and Tony Noriega show up to tell the story again in no uncertain terms. And the story is always bloody.

Putting Little Caesar on the stage presents a problem. A seriously gruesome production, like the remake of Scarface with Al Pacino, would probably run the risk of deconstructing, like that movie did, through its own excess into a satire of itself. Or, you could flip all the cards, and go directly for the satire. Satire would be safer, since it doesn’t ask the audience to take the drama or its subject all that seriously. Perhaps that’s why the Organic decided to go with the satire.

But what if it’s not funny? And, a lot of the time, this production isn’t. The script, by Thomas Riccio and Michael Miner, is based on both the novel and the film of Little Caesar, which may have been rather gritty in their day, but now seem quaintly exaggerated. The current production, under Riccio’s direction, highlights such exaggerations. The gangsters use “dese and dose” accents, the props are cartoonlike (dollar bills the size of legal paper and cardboard cutout guns), and the acting style is distinguished by histrionic poses. Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s not. The drawback to this type of satire is that it soon peaks out. And, judging from the infrequent and quirky bursts of laughter at a Friday night show, this is a real problem and not some hyperbolic critical theory.

Much of the effective humor in Little Caesar relies on the talent of individual actors. Stephan Benet Turner (as Otero) is particularly good in a drunk scene where he earns the affection of his girlfriend by slinking around with a wad of cash sticking out of the waistband of his boxer shorts. Carlos Sanz plays Joe, an “inside man” with hopes of becoming a professional dancer. Sanz’s big moment is a solo dance that is as silly and wonderful a satire as you could want, made all the better because of the marginal skill that Sanz imparts to Joe’s dancing. And Robert Previto (as Big Boy) has inflated himself to the point where his head won’t swivel and he has to walk down the stairs in a special way.

These, as you can see, are actor tricks–actors playing with a style that has no parameters and is therefore open to almost anything. It’s refreshing to see actors enjoying that sort of creative freedom, and even better when they know how to use it. But, such invention is largely ornamentation. Like the cardboard guns, the characters in Little Caesar are essentially two-dimensional. The comic effect of the burlesque is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and the inability of some actors to rise above that law. Catherine Martineau, for instance, plays the quintessential blond bimbo, squeaky voice and all, just like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. So you see that character once and maybe you laugh, but then what? The same is true for David Rommel, who plays Flaherty, the Irish detective, but Rommel can’t even manage a consistent accent. On second thought, that might be part of the humor of Flaherty. But if so, so what? The gag gets old just thinking about it.

Needless to say, the big money and the cardboard guns also lose their comic value in a hurry, but they have other value. The money is big, real big. The newspapers are big too. And so, money and fame become big things that little people measure up to, little people like Little Caesar. Rico, who is Little Caesar, also carries a cardboard .38 that gets bigger and bigger as he climbs the criminal ladder of success. By the end of the play, Rico’s .38 is about the size of a pizza box.

I would have liked it if Rico (played by Anthony Cesaretti, no fooling) could have gotten bigger too, or smaller, or deeper, or something. But, like the minor characters, Rico is as two-dimensional as a Little Caesar’s pizza. Cesaretti plays Rico with an ugly, lip-drooping sneer and a nasal voice that perfectly matches the sneer. Beyond this, there’s nothing really special about Rico, except that Cesaretti has wisely steered clear of playing up any resemblance to Edward G. Robinson. Yet–and I can’t guess why–still photos of Robinson, taken from the film version, are periodically projected on an upstage scrim. Is this a tribute to the movie, a random scenic effect, an obscure comment on the theatrical medium, or what? All I know is that inwardly I wanted Rico to have a third dimension.

But there is no third dimension, and the production style is unwavering on that point. Director Riccio uses music-hall staging, placing the characters in flat compositions whenever possible. Greg Mowery’s set has the falsest of perspectives, with a steeply raked stage and angled side walls, leading the eye upstage to the central projection scrim. And James Card’s lighting design uses the flat black walls and floor as a canvas for stark projections of shadows of fire escapes and venetian blinds.

You don’t have to like it, but there’s no arguing the consistency of the Organic’s production style for Little Caesar. At times the style recalled the epic theater of Brecht and Piscator. But epic theater put these same techniques to work, to address important ideas in the drama, to snap the audience out of the sentimental mode and to make them think. In Little Caesar the artificiality of it all only draws attention to the artificiality of it all. In a word, it’s pointless. And that strikes me as a big mistake, a waste of potential. Because there are problems that I’d rather address in the theater than in a dark alley.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.