Company Players

at the Halsted Theatre Center

If you wanted to be really generous, you could call Larry Manion’s The Big Shoe the poor man’s Kafka. Then you’d laugh your head off at the absurdity.

The play–an incredibly silly meditation on psychiatry, fear, and hopelessness–is a mess. It takes place in a mental ward where the innovative head shrink, a fellow named Goddard, pummels his patients in order to modify behavior. Christopher, his latest victim, has been brought to the ward after being found babbling to a hill of ants in an alley next to his house. He’s been contemplating suicide. To make matters weirder, he keeps talking about a “big shoe.”

“It’s against the law to take your own life,” Goddard, inexplicably dressed in running togs, tells the catatonic Christopher when he’s first brought to him. After beating Christopher up and injecting him full of drugs, Goddard instructs him to re-create the events that brought him to the ward.

This begins a dreary, mostly real- time reenactment of Christopher’s daily routine: cleaning up the bar where he works nights; coming home to drink beer, watch TV, and think about playing his favorite records; eating, sleeping, showering, brushing his teeth, shaving, etc. Christopher talks to himself, undresses, plays with his testicles, pops a pimple, and goes back and forth from the TV to the refrigerator, but actually does very little.

Of course, that’s the point. “You don’t do nothing, don’t have nothing, don’t want nothing,” Christopher mutters. He’s had 34 jobs in three years, none for more than $3 a hour. In the meantime, he sees life dashing by as his friends get married, buy homes, and have careers.

All of Christopher’s action is set in very broad pantomime, with Goddard, played by director Rich Komenich, watching dutifully in the background. Perhaps this might have had a chance in other hands, but Bruce Manion, who plays Christopher, is only mildly engaging. His pantomime is erratic at best. As soon as he establishes the diameter of a room or the placing of an object, he walks right through it.

He does, however, have a knack for establishing the utter boredom of Christopher’s life. Eventually he winds up in bed, staring at the walls. There he watches an ant run around in figure eights. As he jabbers on about how the figure eights remind him of ice skating, Christopher slowly but surely begins to lose his mind. It’s not clear why or how it happens. It just does. When he smashes the ant with his shoe, he hears a scream and a crunching sound, and the “metamorphosis” is supposedly complete. The mystery of the big shoe is established and destroyed in about three seconds flat.

Amazingly, Bruce Manion completely botches the moment. It’s imperative that the audience be able to “see” the shoe with which he murders the ant–it is the single most important, most illuminating gesture in the play–and yet Manion’s pantomime is so poor that he could just as easily be smashing the ant with a make-believe shoe, a rolled-up newspaper, or a handful of toilet paper.

“I’ll be here a while, huh?” Christopher asks Goddard when he comes to.

Goddard assures him that things will be fine. Then he makes a call on his cordless phone and asks a lackey to construct and suspend a big shoe with which to torture Christopher. As the play ends, his horrible delusions are about to become literally true.

“What good is a job if you can’t have fun with it?” Goddard cackles into the receiver. But what good is a play in which the only point is mindless cruelty?