Bailiwick Repertory


Chicago Actors Ensemble

The novels of the elder Alexandre Dumas, like those of fellow newspaper serialists Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, tended to be long, intricately plotted affairs; The Count of Monte Cristo, first published in 1844 in the Journal des debats over several months, took more than 1,000 pages to tell. So how does a theater company adapt such a lengthy tome to the stage without either shortchanging the story or exhausting the audience?

One answer is to make the ordeal of an incredibly long performance the attraction. This was the approach of Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby nearly ten years ago, and the approach of the now-defunct Absolute Theatre three years ago with Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

Another answer is to do what Jeff Casazza and David Zak have done in their adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo: cut all you can, and then cut some more. Casazza and Zak have squeezed this sprawling novel into two acts and two and a half hours. The result is a cramped, rather uneven adaptation that, though it has its moments, seems to be in such a hurry that it stumbles over itself.

Casazza and Zak devote precious little time to character development–too many important characters, like the harem girl Haydee, are whisked into the play (and sometimes whisked back out), and the count’s transformation at the play’s end seems sudden and rings false. Even in a swashbuckler, character development is important: as long as the audience accepts the characters, they can do anything, even, as the Three Musketeers did in Absolute Theatre’s production, perform a vigilante-style execution onstage. In Bailiwick’s production the characters remain such a puzzlement that we hardly care when everything turns out all right in the end for our hero.

Meanwhile, the plot rushes along. Much of the second half of the play passes in a confusing series of connected scenes, signifying, we are told, the count’s revenge against the men who wrongly imprisoned him. These scenes are so abruptly set up and the count’s rough justice so swiftly administered that we’re never allowed to savor his sweet revenge.

Of course, things might have gone better if David Zak’s cast of terrific actors hadn’t seemed so harried and underrehearsed. I don’t know when I’ve heard so many flubbed lines in a professional production. Even when the actors got their lines right, they delivered them hurriedly, as if they were afraid the play would leave without them.

Which was a shame, because the show is not without its intriguing performances. Larry Baldacci plays each of his three roles with such authority and grace that he steals the scene every time he appears. Christopher Cartmill seems equally convincing as both the innocent Edmund Dantes and the revenge-seeking count Dantes becomes. (Interestingly, Cartmill’s take on Dantes at the top of the show is so Christ-like in its innocence and worthiness, so priggishly correct, that it’s actually kind of satisfying when he’s tossed into prison.)

But two and a half hours is just too short a time to tell The Count of Monte Cristo in its entirety, just as the Bailiwick stage is too small to convey the story’s scope.

The Chicago Actors Ensemble’s production of Red Black and Ignorant suffers from the opposite problem. Edward Bond’s simpleminded bit of antinuke propaganda, containing barely enough material for a one-act play, is too small for the big talents of director Rick Helweg and the CAE. This is the company, after all, that was hip enough to produce Heiner Muller before the Berlin Wall came down, cool enough to create a rock-opera version of Woyzeck and set it in South Africa, plucky enough to stage not one but two promenade-style plays–Dzuma and Birthrate–throughout the cathedrallike People’s Church.

Red Black and Ignorant is relentlessly depressing, undramatic, and pretentious. Structured as a series of short vignettes separated by blackouts, it presents us with a man burned to a crisp in a nuclear war, nicknamed Monster, who tells us what his life might have been like had he lived. We see him abused by his fellow classmates. We see him marry and raise a family. But Bond never makes the purpose of these seemingly random scenes clear. The only point seems to be a rather obvious and superficial one: that nuclear war is bad. (Perhaps Bond meant his character’s jet-black hue as an oblique comment on race relations in Britain, but if he did, the comment is very oblique indeed.)

The play does contain a couple of interesting observations about how cruel children can be and a few biting comments about life in a capitalist country. But nothing in the play lives up to Bond’s reputation as a British playwright so far to the left that, in the words of Charles Marowitz, “If England ever went fascist, [he] would be the first writer jailed.” If I were a fascist dictator, I would count myself lucky if my opposition consisted only of playwrights like Bond. Nothing Rick Helweg or his company brings to the play–not Edgard Nau’s superb portrayal of Monster, not Paula Harrigan’s playfully malicious little girl, not even Helweg’s clever transformation of his theater into a bomb shelter–seems like anything but good ideas thrown after bad.