Circle Theatre

Mark Stopeck is a sales rep for the Wednesday Journal in Oak Park. One day while watching The Bullwinkle Show on TV he thought, “Gee, that looks like fun,” so he went to the editor and asked if he could draw a comic strip for the paper. The editor agreed, but only if the comic strip was about Oak Park, so Stopeck created Shrubtown.

Like Oak Park, Shrubtown is a tree-lined burg heavily dependent on the tourists who come to see an architecturally significant building, much like the home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for himself in Oak Park. But in Shrubtown the building is the Shrubtown State Penitentiary and Museum, built in 1923 by Jacob Roderick Jones, a famous prison architect whose motto was “Beauty, Truth, Confinement.” To remain profitable, the prison must be kept full, so the Shrubtown officials have devised a web of ordinances so intricate that anyone can be arrested at any time. When Martin Krater, a hapless unemployed mope, walks down to city hall to ask why his tax bill arrived with postage due, he soon finds himself charged wth 613 ordinance violations–a new record. He is sent to the penitentiary and thrown into a cell with Pat (“The Cat”) Murphy, a folksinger and songwriter who never stops playing his guitar.

Shrubtown looks like it would be more at home in an alternative weekly than in a suburban community newspaper. Heavily crosshatched in pen and ink, it shows the influence of R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and other underground cartoonists. But looking closer it’s clear that Stopeck’s draftsmanship, like his satire, is still a bit juvenile. Shrubtown looks like it’s being published at least in part as a favor to a loyal employee.

Shrubtown the play has the same look. A “live comic strip,” this world premiere is being staged by the Circle Theatre–where Stopeck is an actor and the resident designer. It’s easy to imagine the artistic director thinking “What the heck–Mark’s been a trouper and the theater needs a play.” Besides, the Circle Theatre is in Forest Park, which is adjacent to Oak Park, so there might be a good number of loyal Shrubtown readers nearby, eager to see Martin Krater in the flesh.

Those are the only conceivable reasons for putting on this long, repetitive, and not very funny play. And to make matters worse, as staged by artistic director Karen Skinner, Shrubtown comes across as a blend of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

Dean Kharasch portrays Martin Krater in a weird black fright wig, imitating Pee-wee’s voice and drawing his face downward like a wax figure who’s worked too long under hot lights. Under Skinner’s direction all the other actors transform themselves into cartoons, too. This may sound sensible, considering that the play consists of cartoon panels brought to life, but the effect is so sophomoric that Shrubtown looks more like a kids’ show than a satire for grown-ups.

The biggest problem, however, is one that plagues many plays based on comic strips. A comic strip is episodic, each offering a self-contained unit. But a play must be continuous, with each part intimately connected to all the others. For the most part Stopeck has merely transferred the dialogue from his panels to the “script,” making his play a freight train of action, with one scene following another in tedious succession. Sure, Martin Krater’s adventures seem to be connected–he decides to escape, the prison librarian falls in love with him, a mad scientist tries to inject him with a “cure for crime,” and so on. But these episodes never coalesce into a plot, and after more than two hours, even a funny comic strip would be hard to take.