National Pastime Theater

“Chicago ain’t no sissy town,” I heard someone quip on the radio the other day. And it’s true: the hog butchers may have given way to the paper pushers, but we still like our civic symbols to swagger. Hence our preference for poetry that slams, theater that rocks, and writers who love to show us how streetwise they are even if they grew up in Oak Park or Flossmoor or on the North Shore.

Michael Sokoloff’s Red Dog Moon is a play very much in Chicago’s roughhousing tradition. Set in the down-and-dirty world of bikers and rednecks, the story could have been lifted from Mamet: a group of nasty, brutish types get together and concoct a plan to kill a man for his classic bike, a Vincent Black Shadow. The marked man, however, proves to be wilier than expected, and what seems at first an easy job turns into a showdown between the gang leader and his intended victim (with the strong hint that to the victor will go the rest of the gang).

Like a lot of testosterone-poisoned plays, Sokoloff’s has its faults. He indulges in a few too many flashbacks and shovels on a little too much Sam Shepard-style pseudo-Native American mysticism. And he ends the play with a scene that’s supposed to be very dramatic–a character is dragged off to hell by his own inner demons–but isn’t because it’s fantastical in a way the rest of the play is not. Yet this National Pastime Theater production–only its second–is never tripped up by the flaws in Sokoloff’s script, partly because Sokoloff the director has assembled such a strong cast, and partly because Sokoloff the fight choreographer has come up with some battles that advance the story even as they dazzle the audience.

Everyone who attempts Chicago-style deep-dish theater pushes the actors to the limit. In the Lookingglass production of The Jungle, for example, actors were hauled up on chains to signify livestock about to be slaughtered. But usually this theatrical brinkmanship pumps the actors up so much that they’re unable to play the quiet moments in the show, without bellowing their lines. In Red Dog Moon, however, Sokoloff’s cast plays the highs and lows with equal finesse–a feat all the more impressive considering how many fight scenes there are. At the play’s climax Arch Harmon and James Michael Lynch, playing Crow and Nick, literally chase each other around the theater, leaping on and off the stage in a full-throttle battle. This game of cat and mouse is interrupted periodically by moments of quiet conversation between the two. Never for a moment do they lose control. They remain absolutely in character. Their dialogue is delivered in just the right hushed growl, even when it follows moments of violence that seem so real you can’t help but cringe.

Sokoloff is an accomplished fight choreographer, so it’s not surprising that he can find so many variations on the basic theme of two men fighting. What is amazing is that the choreographer in Sokoloff never overwhelms Sokoloff the director or Sokoloff the playwright. Though Sokoloff’s fight scenes are clearly at the center of his directorial vision–the theater’s raised-platform stage even looks like a ropeless boxing ring–the violence never seems gratuitous or mean-spirited.

Rather, the violence is an expression of the intense physicality of the characters. No matter how exciting Sokoloff’s fight choreography becomes, it is always subservient to the story. From the first moment of the play, when Mark Habert and Michael Hargrove enter stripped to the waist, laughing and rolling around like puppies, you know exactly what kind of people they are. Later, it’s hardly surprising when this roughhousing turns mean and deadly, especially when the characters are as well drawn and as finely acted as they are here.

Despite the flaws and excesses of the script, Sokoloff’s writing has an overall tensile strength. In his director’s notes, he says that he gave up playwriting for a time and wrote S and M erotica instead–and his writing here has the intensity and control of well-written erotica. But here the biker world is more than just Sokoloff’s chosen milieu: he knows how to use the medium to tell a great story. When Lynch describes in loving detail every inch inside and out of his Black Shadow, his description has a fetishistic sexiness that Robert Pirsig never managed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In his director’s notes, Sokoloff also complains about the timidity of contemporary theater: “The temple has been usurped by accountants and their ass-lickers; there are burghers where there should be visionaries, murderers and madmen.” In predictable modernist fashion, he calls for a new theater, a “dangerous theatre, outlaw theatre.” What could never have been predicted, however, is how close to the mark this playwright, director, and fight choreographer would come with Red Dog Moon. It ain’t no sissy play. And that, surprisingly, is its greatest strength.