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Lookingglass Theatre Company

The Lookingglass Theatre is a talented, young, energetic company. That is their greatest strength–and weakness. Like many ambitious young artists, they seem overly eager to prove themselves and so are instinctively drawn to difficult and grandiose projects just beyond their capabilities.

Past Lookingglass productions have been noteworthy for their refusal to merely follow the same old tedious rules for play making. For example, in Of One Blood, performed a year and a half ago, author and company member Andrew White incorporated a few filmmaking tricks into his piece, including the technique of repeating scenes word for word, gesture for gesture, to heighten dramatic effect.

However, in Lookingglass’s current production, an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle by company member David Schwimmer, this youthful experimentation ends up subverting the text entirely, turning the focus of the project from the story of the immigrant family Rudkos and their horrifying adventures in Chicago’s industrial jungle to the production itself. It’s as if Schwimmer had lost faith in Sinclair’s message somewhere along the way, but was contractually obligated to keep working on the story. Not content with translating Sinclair’s admittedly flawed work of social realism to the stage, the company has used this production to attempt to create a new hybrid variety of theater, spliced from sources as various as modern dance, camp theater, psychedelic films, Monty Python routines, and German expressionist theater (as revived by John Cusack and his New Criminals in last year’s production of Methusalem).

The result lacks any sort of stylistic unity–characters sing and dance one minute (in a very camp parody of Broadway kick lines, while singing a song about the stockyards), and the next minute resume their dreary lives as workers in the corrupt and dangerous meat-packing industry. More often the jarring shift from one style to another only succeeds in tearing apart an already loosely structured show.

There are moments of incredible power and drama in the production, especially in the first act. But most of the time the emotional side of the Rudkoses’ story is lost, as Schwimmer and company repeat the generic immigrant’s story we all learned in social studies: their hopeful emigration, their dashed dreams, their harsh lives in the immigrant slums. We never get a sense that these characters represent people, only ideas.

Still, only a cad would fail to feel sad at Ona’s death soon after childbirth. And only someone completely allergic to modern dance would fail to appreciate the two dances Schwimmer has choreographed around the meat-packing factory. In the first, Lawrence DiStasi plays a steer being shunted along through the factory from slaughter to dressing to cold storage. In the second, DiStasi, in an absolutely show- stopping display of athletics, snorts and bucks and kicks around the stage, imitating a steer on the loose in the factory. Watching him leaping and springing through the scene, turning midair somersaults and stamping his feet threateningly, I was torn between admiring his gymnastic prowess and fearing for his life.

Unfortunately, for every sublime moment in this show there are two ridiculous ones. This ratio would be even higher, but thankfully Philip R. Smith is only allowed to play seven characters in the production. He runs wild through the show, stealing the focus, hamming it up, and doing his darnedest to undermine the integrity of serious scenes with his repertoire of silly gestures, funny walks, and squeaky voices. Smith is one of the few actors who seems at home in this eclectic mess.

The other actors plod competently along, trapped in a world not of their making. A case in point is Andrew White, who does all he can to make his long, tedious speech at the end of the play interesting (and in the process makes himself almost hoarse). The original speech was about socialism, though Schwimmer has chosen to edit out all references to Sinclair’s favorite cause, and the resulting harangue only succeeds in lengthening an already too long second act.

Under the best circumstances, this work would have been hard to adapt, for the novel has not aged well. Much of Sinclair’s prose seems labored and old-fashioned, and the social problems he attacks–the treatment of European immigrants, the unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry–no longer seem relevant. To make matters worse, Sinclair’s novel falls apart near the end, a fact he freely admitted to his publisher when he wrote, “I think that the incidents in the second half of my book move too swiftly and that its characters are insufficiently realized.” In fact, for a while Sinclair planned to end his novel with the death of the last member of Jurgis Rudkos’s family, and devote a second novel to Jurgis’s adventures, which now make up the last third of The Jungle.

Schwimmer’s adaptation deteriorates at exactly the same point that the novel does. And just as Sinclair would have done well to follow his instincts and toss out the last third of his novel, Schwimmer could eliminate nearly everything that happens after intermission with little damage. Watching this mess unfold on the stage, it’s hard not to wonder why this project was chosen. It’s clear that Schwimmer is not perfectly comfortable with Sinclair’s socialism–he even takes special pains to tell us in his rambling director’s note that he’s “no socialist” and is “all behind the idea of free enterprise.” And though I don’t doubt Lookingglass’s good intentions, I do doubt that they really know what they’re talking about.