Short Story Theatre

at the Royal George Theatre Center Gallery


Apple Tree Theatre

Harry Mark Petrakis is one of those Chicago-based writers, like novelist Richard Stern and poet G.E. Murray, who seem to have spent their whole lives hovering on the edge of fame. Every few years Petrakis’s work is rediscovered, and he receives a dozen or two column inches in the papers, maybe an accompanying photo. And then, a week or two later, he slips back into obscurity again. Which is a shame, because Petrakis is a fine storyteller, with a gift for vivid, if sometimes flamboyant, descriptions and an ear for streetwise dialogue at least as acute as Nelson Algren’s.

This, for example, is how Petrakis describes Rhodanthe’s mysterious suitor in “The Song of Rhodanthe”: “His hair was thick and dark and an untamed and errant curl glittered across his forehead.” Glittered. A lesser writer would have used a safer, more prosaic verb like “fell” or “hung.” A tin-eared one would have crossed out all those conjunctions and created a mere shopping list of adjectives: “His hair was thick, dark, untamed, and curly.” But Petrakis clearly enjoys the booming Sandburg-like rhythms he’s created and the striking way a word like “glittered” hits the ear.

It comes as no surprise that Petrakis’s stories are wonderful read aloud. In fact, in the foreword to his Collected Stories he even admits that he relishes reading his short stories to “high school, college, library and club audiences.” Nor should it surprise anyone that Petrakis’s words translate nicely to the stage.

In adapting and directing the three tales that make up Greek Streets–“The Song of Rhodanthe,” “Rosemary,” and “The Wooing of Ariadne”–Marco Benassi and Tim Clue have wisely stepped aside and let Petrakis tell his stories in absentia. Using a literary adaptation technique done to death in recent years by the likes of City Lit, Shira Piven, Frank Galati, and scores of Galati disciples–which treats fiction as mere fodder for the stage, parceling out the narration to various actors in the form of monologues or dialogue–Benassi and Clue manage to come up with something fresh and compelling.

In large part, this is because Petrakis’s work is fresh and compelling. His stories are strong, with tight structures and definite beginnings, middles, and ends. “The Song of Rhodanthe,” for example, about a dreamy 27-year-old “spinster” who falls in love with a mysterious stranger, is so well constructed it could pass for a classic fairy tale. Similarly, Petrakis’s characters in “Rosemary” are so strong and well defined that they carry the story, in which a tired, broke cook befriends a lonely woman who comes into his diner near closing time. Even when Petrakis comes perilously close to rehashing cultural stereotypes, as he does in “The Wooing of Ariadne,” he has enough wit and sense to mock the stereotypes–in this case, a lively Zorba-like Greek male woos a woman as shrewish and difficult as Hera.

However, it would be unfair to credit Petrakis with all the success of this show. Benassi and Clue’s strong, seasoned cast of six non-Equity actors deliver performances to be proud of–and some of them play four or five different characters. Sarah Ahmad, for example, plays with equal ease a romantic spinster, a boisterous whore, and a fiery shrew.

Chris Scheithe, too, deserves notice. Though he’s less versatile than Ahmad, his realistic portrayal of blue-collar loser Nick in “Rosemary” is, like the show in general, remarkably free of cliches.

Speaking of easy cliches, the Apple Tree Theatre’s tedious revival of the Joseph Stein, John Kander, and Fred Ebb musical Zorba contains nothing but. Based on the 1964 movie Zorba the Greek and Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel of the same name, about a bookworm who befriends an exuberant Greek peasant who teaches him the value of being exuberant, the musical retains little that made the novel (and to an extent the movie) compelling.

The character of Zorba has degenerated as his manifestations increase. In the novel he’s an enigmatic, hedonistic, unpredictable, endlessly fascinating character; in the movie, as played by Anthony Quinn, he’s the energetic, sloppy, eternally gregarious symbol of the Greek peasant temperament; and in the Apple Tree production, Peter Siragusa depicts him as a very hammy Zero Mostel.

Similarly, very little of the intense spiritual brooding that powers the novel–much of Kazantzakis’s book is devoted to the narrator’s struggle with mind-body dualism and his need to either accept or reject Buddhism–survives the translation from page to screen to stage. What little is left appears in Ebb’s perky, coyly naive lyrics: “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die.”

You’d have thought that Stein, the man who transformed Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman into Fiddler on the Roof, would have been able to build a great play around a character as interesting as Zorba, but you’d be wrong. Two acts and two and a half hours just isn’t enough time to show all the contradictory sides of Zorba–the devoted lover, the cheating scoundrel, the quick-to-anger pacifist, the veteran of the Greek wars for independence–especially when you have to stop the story every few minutes for another song.

What absolutely forgettable songs they are too. And, for the most part, unnecessary. Of the 16 musical numbers in the show, only 2–“The Crow” and “Happy Birthday”–are integral to the story. You’d never guess from this tedious score that Kander and Ebb produced the sublime songs in Cabaret.

Bringing this flawed material to the Highland Park stage, director Ernest Zulia falls into every possible trap Stein, Kander, and Ebb have laid. And despite the presence of a number of fine actors in the cast, most notably Rengin Altay and Suzanne Petri, it’s almost impossible to care about the characters. This goes double for Niko, the bookish narrator. As played by Robert Kahn, Niko is a real puzzle: he comes off less like a genuine intellectual than an affable, plucky, fashion-conscious, can-do American.

Kahn’s Niko is so unruffled and self-contained you never believe for a minute he’s on a spiritual journey. Just as you never really believe that in the real world he’d give a dirty, loud, unshaven, eccentric peasant like Zorba a second look.

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