Court Theatre stages adaptation of a Saul Bellow classic
"I am an American, Chicago-born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock; first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent."
That truly freestyle opening sentence of The Adventures of Augie March , Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow's career-making 1953 novel, is arguably one of the most dynamic in all of 20th century American literature. To be sure, it captures the energy and improvisatory punch of Chicago during the Great Depression, at the very moment when Bellow was coming of age. The son of Lithuanian-Jewish parents who left St. Petersburg, Russia for Quebec, Canada (where Bellow was born in 1915), Bellow and his family moved to Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood when he was nine.
Readers of the novel, a 586-page picaresque, coming-of-age tale that chronicles Augie's family, his many jobs and mentors, the various women in his life, and his travels from Chicago, to Mexico, to Florence, Italy -- all with a dizzying display of language -- might well find themselves wondering how it could possibly be adapted for the stage. But Court Theatre has done just that, as director Charles Newell has teamed with David Auburn (the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning winning playwright of Proof and a University of Chicago alum), for a production with a 13-person cast. It stars Patrick Mulvey (who Newell describes as "a fearless, agile actor") in the marathon title role, and also incorporates the talents of choreographer Erin Kilmurray, and puppet design by Chicago's innovative Manual Cinema.
"I first read the novel in college and it had a major impact on me," said Newell, who worked with Auburn on the development of the project for four years. "And of course being at Court, in the middle of the University of Chicago campus [where Bellow was a professor with the Committee on Social Thought for three decades, beginning in 1962], I was able to talk to people who knew Bellow, including Nick Rudall, the founder of Court, who died last year. Nick understood the book's many classical references, and how Bellow used many of the people in his real life, including himself, to tell the story."
"There is very little dialogue in the novel," said Newell, "so David [Auburn] created scenes that suggest how his characters might really have talked, which is not quite the same as Bellow's language. We came to call it 'the Bellow music,' with the characters speaking Augie's inner thoughts, and in the Mexico scene we even have a talking eagle courtesy of Manual Cinema. Also, because we knew we needed a heightened theatricality to tell the story, I recalled the power of German choreographer Pina Bausch's dance theater and brought in two of her former dancers, Thusnelda Mercy and Pascal Merighi, to create the gesture and movement we needed."
Newell and his designers also echoed Bausch's use of an open stage space and a simplicity of objects, with four tables and 13 chairs used to suggest the story's many locales.
And what is Jewish about the story, aside from the Yiddish inflections that often permeate Bellow's writing, and the vivid character of Einhorn, the disabled small-time businessman and huckster who hires Augie as an errand boy and becomes his mentor?
"There is a Shabbat dinner scene," said Newell, "and we've been learning some of the prayers and the blessings over the candles and bread in Hebrew."
"The Adventures of Augie March" runs through June 9 (with a possible extension) at Court Theatre, 5525 S. Ellis. For tickets ($50-$74), call (773) 753-4472 or visit courttheatre.org.
*Note: In conjunction with the production a special exhibit, The Adaptations of Augie March , will be on view through Aug. 30 at the Special Collections Research Center Exhibit Gallery of the University of Chicago Library, 1100 E. 57 St. Among the highlights are handwritten drafts of Bellow's novel, original drafts of Auburn's script, Newell's notes, and the designers' sketches.
In Skokie, two Holocaust-themed plays
Readers of this magazine hardly need to be reminded of the pernicious, worldwide rise of antisemitism these days. But the theater always finds ways to deal with the subject in compelling ways, and two plays headed to Skokie's North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in the coming weeks promise to do just that.
Wiesenthal: A Play About Nazi-Hunter Simon Wiesenthal is a one-man show written and performed by Tom Dugan, about the legendary Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to bringing more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice.
"I only discovered the 'real character' of Wiesenthal after seeing the film The Boys from Brazil as a teenager," said Dugan, who is Catholic, but whose wife and children are Jewish. "And my dad was a World War II veteran and liberator, so my interest in what happened has always been there. But it wasn't until I read Wiesenthal's obituary that I thought 'This is an amazing life story for the theater.' On top of everything else, I learned Wiesenthal had been a stand-up comedian in Germany before the rise of the Nazis. So, there is even some humor in the show."
"Wiesenthal, who died in 2005 at the age of 96, also was an incredibly determined and resourceful researcher who spoke at least five languages and understood how to attract the attention of the media for his cause. The play is set in 2003 and makes references to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And as Wiesenthal said, 'the human savage' will never go away -- it can only be contained."
Hitler's Tasters , by Michelle Kholos Brooks, puts a meta-contemporary spin on the true story of a group of young German women who, after a threat to Hitler's life, were confined in a building adjacent to his headquarters in Prussia and forced to taste his (vegetarian) meals.
Wiesenthal runs June 26-30 and Hitler's Tasters runs July 5-14 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. For tickets to Wiesenthal ($40-$60), and Hitler's Tasters ($32-$46), call (847) 673-6300 or visit northshorecenter.org.
'The Flower of Hawaii' to bloom at Folks Operetta
Chicago's Folks Operetta company fills a distinctive niche in the city's musical theater landscape with its devotion to producing Viennese and American operettas from the early 20th century. And through its Reclaimed Voices Series, it focuses particularly on recovering the lost or forgotten works of the Jewish composers who created many of those works, and who suffered or perished during World War II and the Holocaust.
The company's latest project is "The Flower of Hawaii," a rarely revived 1931 work by the Berlin-based Hungarian-Jewish composer Paul Abraham (1892-1960), who blended European waltzes with his passion for American jazz of the period, and who, in this operetta, even introduced the Hawaiian guitar.
Inspired by the true story of the gifted and notably intellectual 18th century Princess Ka'iulani, Abraham's work skewers American colonialism and at the same time engages in escapist entertainment as it spins a multitude of love stories -- primarily that of Laya, a Hawaiian princess who must choose between the man she loves (an American naval officer), and the Hawaiian prince to whom she was promised in childhood. The show has been translated by Folks Operetta's producer, Gerald Frantzen, with direction by Amy Hutchison and Anthony Barrese conducting.
"The Flower of Hawaii" runs June 29-July 14 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. For tickets ($30-$40), visit stage773.com.