Raven Theatre Company

In a 1934 lecture to the Sociedad Amigos del Artes in Buenos Aires, Federico Garcia Lorca spoke of the creative spirit called the duende (literally, “dwarf”), distinguishing it from the detached, intellectual muse and the likewise aloof angel–traditional keepers of the artist’s genius–thus: “Angel and Muse approach from without . . . but the Duende, on the other hand, come[s] to life in the nethermost recesses of the blood.” The duende, says Garcia Lorca, “trailing the rusted knife blades of his wings along the ground . . . chooses the brim of the well for his open struggle with the creator. . . . The duende draws blood, and in the healing of the wound that never quite closes, all that is unprecedented and invented in man’s work has its origin.”

In Richard Greenberg’s play The Author’s Voice, there is a duende-in- training. Or maybe he’s an urban Rumpelstiltskin. Or a second-year recruit in Beelzebub’s street gang. Or the ugly duckling that laid the golden eggs. Or maybe he’s what all writers see when they look in the mirror. In any case, a gargoylish imp named Gene lives in a closet off the cubicle belonging to Todd, a handsome and charming young writer whose editor is determined to turn his first novel into a best-seller and, en route, corner him in the hay. Todd and Gene have this arrangement–while Todd meets with the agents and poses for press photographs, Gene writes page after page of the brilliant prose that makes the adulation possible. This collaboration has its ups and downs, of course. “You are the problem of my life,” declares the shallow Todd. “But without you, I haven’t any life!” Gene is not entirely happy either–after a forbidden venture outside the apartment, for which he is soundly and brutally punished by Todd, he sorrowfully concludes, “The outside world is a painful place, but everywhere is painful.” This symbiotic relationship survives until Gene begins to covet Todd’s perceived role as romantic hero, and with the shattering of Gene’s hopes comes the destruction of Todd’s.

As directed by John Austin, The Author’s Voice packs an extraordinary amount of allegory and action into its bare 40 minutes of playing time, but emerges oddly ambivalent. On one level it is a straightforward morality fable, a warning against making deals with the devil (at one point, Todd announces, “I live with a demon!”). On another level it’s a Harlan-Ellison- style variation–more secularized and cerebral in its justice, but still demonstrating that nobody gets something for nothing in this world. On another it’s a modern retelling of any number of stories in which ugly and misshapen creatures are transformed by the love of a beautiful princess (a possibility that occurs to Gene, with devastating results). And on yet another Gene is nothing more than the darker side of any artist’s inspiration, and Todd’s downfall is no different from that of any artist who dares to think he has created something “original.” But if a play is to operate successfully on many levels, one of them must predominate, if only to give the audience a foothold from which to regard the other possibilities. Austin has not decided which layer is to lie on the surface, so we are constantly off balance and bewildered by the multiple directions. (In all fairness, this confusion may dissipate as the actors settle into their roles and their activity becomes more focused.)

Nevertheless, the acting carries the production most admirably. James Schneider delivers a performance as exquisite as it is grotesque, playing the crablike Gene with precisely the right balance of repellent monstrousness and engaging, even humorous, pathos. Equally skillful is J. David Blazevich (Todd), who conveys both the cruelty and the despair of those whose faces are their only fortune. (There are moments during the scenes between Todd and Gene that recall Joe Buck and Ratso in the film Midnight Cowboy, though this parallel may be unintentional.) As the editor Portia, a character written to be little more than ambitious, nosy, and horny (which traits lead to her flunking the audition as Gene’s romantic fairy princess), Donna Jerousek manages to infuse her thankless role with charm and humanity.

Next to the flashy, passionate kinetics of The Author’s Voice, Allan Bates’s Next Time cannot help but be eclipsed. This fragile minimalist vignette of an elderly couple’s unflagging devotion to one another in their sunset years is further handicapped by the casting of an actor several decades too young to play a septuagenarian husband. Though a competent enough player, Matt Robison not only appears too youthful, but also is unable to project the weariness and resignation that come with years of living in a none-too-gentle world. Because we cannot accept the actor as the spouse and contemporary of a woman in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, his speaking for her to us comes off as audacious and patronizing rather than as an expression of affectionate acceptance. Since Robison’s character does virtually all the talking and performs nearly all the action of the play, there is little that Karen Gundersen, also too young as his bedridden wife, and Kristin Reninger, as the child brought to play the violin for the wife’s amusement, can do to save this production of a work by one of Chicago’s most prolific playwrights.