The challenge of making a political statement in mainstream theater is to preach to the converted without beating them over the head. At the Court and Body Politic theaters, the contention that race- and class-based injustice still exists around the globe won’t meet with much argument. Keeping the audience entertained and interested while making such a statement is a more difficult proposition.
In vastly different ways, Court Theatre’s production of Derek Walcott’s Pantomime, which critiques a history of racism in the West Indies, and the Body Politic and Apple Tree coproduction of Bill Cain’s Stand-Up Tragedy, which lambastes America’s crumbling educational and social systems, succeed admirably in communicating their authors’ relevant though rather familiar views. Pantomime uncoils like a long fuse, slowly igniting years of unspoken resentment, while Stand-Up Tragedy explodes in the emotional fireworks of anger and desperation. Both burn with an intensity rarely seen these days in Chicago theater.
Walcott, the playwright and poet who won the 1992 Nobel Prize, sets Pantomime in a remote Tobago guest house run by retired English music-hall actor Harry Trewe (Greg Vinkler), who is composing a light musical-comedy version of Robinson Crusoe in which he hopes to star with his servant Jackson Phillip (Darryl Croxton), a retired Creole actor. When Phillip balks at the idea of “walking in front of a set of tourists naked playing cannibal,” a bolt of inspiration strikes Trewe. He suggests that they switch roles. He, the British white man, will play the savage Friday, and Phillip, the West Indian islander, will play Crusoe.
What begins in Trewe’s eyes as “something light, just a little pantomime” turns into a bitter indictment of the remnants of colonialism. Phillip launches into his portrayal of Crusoe with a strength and conviction that make Trewe uncomfortable. He ridicules Phillip’s performance and insists they forget the whole idea and go back to the way things were. Phillip observes that what he and Trewe have been acting out is the whole history of imperialism.
“A little while back, I came out here quite calmly and normally with the breakfast things and found you almost stark naked, kneeling down, and you told me you were getting into your part. Here am I getting into my part and you object,” says Phillip. “I don’t think I can–should–concede my getting into a part halfway and abandoning things, just because you, as my superior, give me orders. People become independent.”
The play progresses predictably from friction to mutual understanding, but what makes it so powerful is the beauty of Walcott’s language and the multiplicity of relationships he explores in examining the roles of master and servant. Walcott forces us to view not only Harry Trewe as an imperialist force subjugating the colonized but also Jesus Christ, Robinson Crusoe’s author Daniel Defoe, and even the theater director. It is to Walcott’s credit that he provokes these thoughts without ever losing his sense of humor or becoming too didactic.
Though Jonathan Wilson’s direction suffers from some tortoiselike pacing, and his method of setting off key speeches with musical backgrounds and radical lighting shifts undermines the subtlety of some of Walcott’s writing, Vinkler’s and Croxton’s beautifully rendered performances carry the play. Vinkler’s Trewe oozes equal amounts of music-hall sleaze and understated racist bile while at the same time remaining a very sympathetic and understandable character, and Croxton’s Phillip perfectly captures that character’s history of pain and anger beneath the veneer of a good-humored gentleman.
Body Politic Theatre and Apple Tree Theatre Company
at the Body Politic Theatre
A much more obvious but no less powerful exposure of the results of societal inequities is Apple Tree Theatre Company’s hit production of Bill Cain’s Stand-Up Tragedy, which the Body Politic Theatre has imported from Highland Park. Cain’s play takes us inside a Catholic boys’ school on the rough lower east side of Manhattan, depicting the incredible odds the students face in trying to get an education while surrounded by the ravages of drugs, gang warfare, poverty, and family strife.
Using monologues, short scenes, and even rap numbers, Cain transports the viewer into an urban nightmare and inside the minds of the gifted artist Lee Cortez (David Anzuelo), whose violent drawings of superheroes underscore his abusive family life, and Tom Griffin (David New), the high-minded though somewhat self-serving teacher who labors to reverse the downward spiral of Lee’s life.
Though Cain’s situations are familiar and his jeremiad over the American educational system is nothing new, the inventiveness of his style and depth of some of his characters keep Stand-Up Tragedy fresh, intelligent, and original. The world-weary Father Larkin (Peter Aylward) presides over the school with a faith that is no longer stirred but shaken as he prays for a “better God” to uproot the “ecology of evil” in this neighborhood. Tom Griffin struggles vainly to make a difference in his students’ lives, but he keeps his options open by applying to grad school. Each of Cain’s characters is filled with wonderful contradictions, which highlight the ambivalence that comes from single-handedly trying to reverse the inevitable.
Cain also deserves praise for refusing to reward his characters with simplistic happy endings. Although Stand-Up Tragedy might sound like Fame crossed with The White Shadow, in this story the reformed drug dealer doesn’t escape his past, the abused youth can’t run away from his family, and the idealistic teacher doesn’t become a hero. Walcott’s Pantomime ends with a handshake, but this play ends with a gunshot.
With the exceptions of one sequence that comes perilously close to Steve Martin’s “King Tut” dance and rap numbers that sound as if they were performed by the Chicago Bears, this production under the direction of Gary Griffin blazes through Cain’s script with uncommon vitality and exuberance. All nine members of the ensemble have been perfectly cast, and the breakneck pacing drives home Cain’s intensely uncompromising view of inner-city life.