Bailiwick Repertory

In a September 12, 1986, Reader article titled “The People v. Ken Walker,” Toni Schlesinger attributes this axiom to Joseph Shapiro, founder of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, about scandals in the art world: “Better a bad settlement than a good trial”–in other words, avoid the glare of distorting publicity.

After seeing Bailiwick Repertory’s new musical drama Son of Fire I’m inclined to add: Better a bad settlement or bad trial than a good show, if that show runs roughshod over the unusual nature of artists’ lives.

Son of Fire is a good show, as far as craftsmanship goes. It’s efficiently staged, interestingly designed, generally well acted, and under Dan Stetzel’s musical direction consistently well sung. But it misses the point of the story it seeks to dramatize–a real-life scandal that shocked the Chicago art world in the mid-1980s. Instead of giving the episode the subtle in- quiry it invites, director David Zak and composer-librettist Christopher Moore (a good musician but not a gifted lyricist) settle for a broad, heavy-handed treatment that’s completely at odds with the ambiguous story. From the alternately strident and soupy pop-operatic score, whose pedestrian rhymes and predictable musical patterns are all wrong for the sophisticated characters, to the amateurish pretend paintings, whose garish ugliness is a jarring contrast to the stage set’s understated elegance (Robert A. Knuth is credited with scenic design), Son of Fire completely misunderstands–and misrepresents–the milieu in which it’s set and the sensibility it aims to reflect.

Like David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Son of Fire is an unabashedly fictitious treatment of a true story. But where M. Butterfly used facts as the jumping-off point for a probe of complex, brilliantly interwoven psychological, philosophical, and aesthetic themes, Son of Fire is cluttered with labored TV-movie cliches about sex and celebrity that have very little to do with the Chicago art world even at its most manipulative. The show advertises its own ignorance in scene after scene, laughably portraying the Chicago art press as hype-monger- ing, microphone-wielding, flashbulb-popping piranhas straight out of a Die Hard flick and naively depicting gallery openings as glitzy Oscar-scale events. Meanwhile the genuinely intriguing possibilities inherent in the incident are squandered.

An art collector, Ken Walker, committed suicide in 1986 after being charged with stealing valuable artworks from the home of a dead painter, Miyoko Ito, with whom Walker had had an intense, possibly romantic relationship several years earlier. The affair between the middle-aged Japanese woman and the much younger white man stirred plenty of gossip–not least because Walker was gay and Ito was married. When Ito’s husband, a businessman named Harry Ichiyasu, brought theft charges against Walker after Ito’s death from cancer, Walker’s defense was that the items in question were gifts, and that Ichiyasu was merely a cuckold seeking revenge; thanks in large part to sloppy prosecution, Walker was acquitted. But he immediately faced other theft charges, brought by a gallery he had once worked at, as well as a civil suit by Ichiyasu. One night he went out to the beach near Belmont Harbor, doused himself with gasoline, and burned himself to death.

Acknowledging that he knows little of the case beyond what he gleaned from newspaper accounts, Moore has written (in clunky courtroom-drama flashbacks) the story of one Ken Wagner, whose intense affair with painter Chieko Shima propels him up the art-world ladder. Shima is both his sponsor and his mentor as she instructs him in artistic arcana, including the writings of Yukio Mishima (whose work speaks of “young boys killing themselves by the sea,” she notes in a fairly blunt bit of foreshadowing) and the meaning of an African fetish dog symbolizing the sealing of relationships. She also gives Wagner a painting, Son of Fire, that represents “an incandescent essence of desire,” she sings in a pulsing ballad.

The hokey look of this painting–a truly terrible comic-book image of a fireball–illustrates everything that’s wrong with the play. Though it follows real-life facts quite closely, it responds to them only on the kind of superficial level that can be expressed simplistically in a pop song. Issues such as Walker’s sexual ambivalence, the cultural contrasts between East and West, and the Chicago art world’s movement from the idealism and experimentation of the 60s to the wheeling and dealing of the corrupt 80s are dealt with perfunctorily, so that Moore can milk Wagner and Shima’s romance for far more than it’s worth. The show’s best song–a country-flavored quartet, “Four People,” in which Shima and her husband encounter Wagner and his boyfriend–exemplifies the problem: it’s a pretty tune, but its sickly-sweet melancholy is light-years from the rarefied sensibility that characterized Walker, Ito, and the world in which they moved. These people were neurotic and unstable, to be sure–Walker may even have been a sociopath–but they were keenly intelligent and discriminating. They rejected anything that smacked of the obvious; Son of Fire revels in it.

There’s no denying the talent involved in this Bailiwick Repertory production, the first major entry in its gay- and lesbian-themed Pride Performance Series 93. (Though a musical about a fucked-up fag who kills himself on a gay beach hardly seems an apt offering; call me old-fashioned, but this is gay pride?) Heading a vocally impressive ensemble (which includes such non-Equity musical-theater stalwarts as Dan Ferretti, Matthew McDonald, Don Auxier, George B. Smart III, and Christopher Gurr) is Will Chase in a fully committed and musically excellent performance as Wagner. (Chase, it should be noted, is far more boyishly vigorous than the epicene Walker was.) Opposite him as Shima is Alexandra Billings, a non-Asian transsexual who’s quite a good singer but not particularly convincing as a middle-aged Japanese woman–and wholly unconvincing as an artist. Of course, Moore hasn’t given Billings much to work with: his shallow depiction of the brilliant, delicate painter makes her come across as little more than an aging geisha.

Interestingly, the only really believable character is Shima’s husband, Freddie Tanaka, who like his real-life counterpart is an art-world outsider. In Gabriel Lingat’s forceful portrayal, Freddie’s earthy, plainspoken hurt carries a credibility that Wagner and Shima’s petty pining lacks; and Freddie’s song “The Man Who Looks the Other Way,” in which he compares the male-dominated traditions of his homeland to the moral ambiguity of American culture, comes closer to exploring real ideas than anything else in the show. The rest of the time Son of Fire turns a very unusual saga into just one more soap opera.