Prop Thtr


Broadway Arts Center

At the end of the production of The Crate Dweller, Neil Giuntoli, the play’s author, director, and lead, came up to me and asked very earnestly if I was Jewish. When I told him I was, he quickly said, “So am I. I just want you to know that.”

Small wonder. The Crate Dweller uses more Nazi propaganda and film footage than anyone but diehard party members could feel comfortable with. To be honest, I’m still not clear what the point of it all was, but Prop Thtr’s latest production was one of the most provocative pieces of theater I’d seen in a long time.

Based on the true story of a Chicago man Giuntoli ran across, The Crate Dweller shows us the final week in the life of Jack Bambito, an angry cancer-stricken Vietnam veteran who lives on the streets. Jack has created his own Nazi “command center” in a crate near the railroad tracks, where various people visit him.

Off and on several powerful and disturbing video montages, accompanied by music that focuses their themes, ran above the actors. All of the videos had violent subjects–Hitler and the Nazis, the atomic bomb–but there was also footage of John Wayne and of Reagan as a wild-west marshal.

Giuntoli’s power as a director and writer is best seen in his use of these unforgettable video collages, which gave The Crate Dweller a cohesiveness that it might otherwise have lacked. The most chilling segment was a montage of scenes from the Warsaw ghetto, shown while “Walk On By” played in the background. As officials pulled starved corpses from the streets, the multitudes rushed past without even looking–just as many now pretend that people like Jack don’t exist. Later, when Jack starts losing control, putting on camouflage makeup and making punji sticks, the videos that ran above him showed missiles being launched and exploding and then children picking through the rubble of burned-out buildings. All this happens while David Bowie sings “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, / We know Major Tom’s a junkie.”

Jack considers himself a Nazi storm trooper extraordinaire. He hears Hitler inside his head and pays him homage at a shrine of animal bones and wood, with a cage of pet rats below. He dreams of becoming president and of having the power to line up the scum of the earth and sentence them to death.

But for all his hate-filled ravings, Jack really just wants to be left alone. He doesn’t go looking for people to preach to, nor does he want to be with those who can tell how different he is. People come to Jack–people who like him. Slim Jim, a black wino who sees Jack simply as a fellow alcoholic; his sister Angela, who lives with a Puerto Rican and won’t put up with Jack’s Nazi talk, but who loves Jack anyway, remembering when he was happy and normal; Benny the railroad guy, who delights in Jack’s ravings and tries to exploit his handyman abilities; and Sol Ruby from the VA hospital, who, slimy Jewish bureaucrat though he is, tries to help Jack the only way he knows–getting him off the streets and into a hospital where he can be treated.

Jack is also visited by people who don’t like him. Lil’ Spooky, a tough black street kid, is particularly offended by Jack’s white-supremacist remarks. He would like Jack to disappear from the face of the earth and tries to help Jack accomplish this mission.

Jack has other problems to contend with–his alcoholism, his cancer, his anger over his wife’s brutal murder. As Jack’s physical and mental states deteriorate, none of the people who visit him can help him. The ghosts of his wife and of his best friend in Vietnam appear and try to force Jack to see that he must take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, not blame everyone else for them.

Everyone involved with this production helped make it work. Scott Vehill’s set and Karen Goodman’s costumes made it seem like Jack’s world was simply uprooted and transplanted into the theater. Neil Giuntoli’s confrontational staging–cast members conversed with and screamed at the audience–added to this effect.

Champagne Powell’s Slim Jim was almost uncomfortable to be around; I expect to run into him in a gutter one day. Tony Russell Jr. as Lil’ Spooky and Roy McCall as Benny were equally real.

But no one could compete with Neil Giuntoli, who was frightening as Jack. He was hateful and vile in his preachings against “niggers and Jews,” and then vulnerable and touching when he was with the ghost of his ex-wife. By making Jack a human being that we can understand and care about, Giuntoli made Jack’s beliefs much more terrifying. We can’t just dismiss him as a crazy, and must wonder in fear how many more Jacks there are.

For a completely incomprehensible evening, try Bocci, Peter Davis’s “calling card” as he enters the Chicago theater scene. Bocci is a work in progress, a 55-minute version of a full-length play. The program asserts that the 45 pages of dialogue presented are the best parts of the play. If so, Davis will have to spend a long time whipping this piece into shape.

Bocci claims to be about an Italian entrepreneur who is trying to maintain his ties with the old country while keeping a firm hold on his business in the U.S. It may well be. But either the segments used from the full piece are too fragmented to convey that, or the whole piece is simply too diluted. It took me three-quarters of the evening to figure out that the father was the main character and not the son.

Some good acting keeps alive the hope that the play will cohere. Michele Filpi’s Mario, the chauvinistic and pigheaded yet engaging entrepreneur, is charmingly confused about his conflicts with his son and wife and about how to change his life. Tracy Gurtatowski’s Elena, Mario’s wife, is both sensual and pure, and Gurtatowski makes her a commanding figure. Unfortunately the motives for the demands Elena makes are never established.

Davis is weak as Marco, the philanthropic son who eventually takes over the business, who he plays as a whiny knee-jerk do-gooder who refuses to see the positive side of his father. Margo Cragin is a little too cute as Jennifer, his career-minded girlfriend from Texas. She looks great, but she can’t overcome the shallowness of her role.

It’s unfair to judge a playwright on the basis of one developing script. Peter Davis could well become an exciting new force in Chicago playwriting. But he isn’t yet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linn M. Ehrlich.