Monday, September 02, 2013

Michael Shannon Just One Reason 'Simpatico' Shines -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a play by Sam Shepard
directed by Dado
A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago
Thru September 15

Michael Shannon should probably be on any shortlist of the world's best actors.

His IMDB filmography is rather extensive, with stellar supporting roles--including Revolutionary Road, for which he was Oscar-nominated, The Runaways, Mud and Man of Steel, in which he played the primary villain--a few top billing credits, such as in the superb Take Shelter and The Iceman (which I look forward to seeing), and a series regular on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

But the Kentucky-born, Chicago-bred stage actor still seems to relish working in local theater, particularly at A Red Orchid Theatre in Old Town, where he was a founding ensemble member and now paired with another--Guy Van Swearingen, still a full-time Chicago firefighter--in Sam Shepard's 1993 play Simpatico.

So even though Shannon's prominence meant discount tickets were an impossibility, when an extension made new tickets available to the sold-out run, I snatched one up for Sunday night. (I had seen Shannon in a few past local productions--The Pillowman at Steppenwolf in 2006; Lady at Northlight in 2007 and, before I or most knew who he was, in the original staging of Killer Joe at Next Theatre Lab in 1993.)

Unless you already have a ticket to an upcoming performance to Simpatico, or are willing to attempt to get stand-by tickets (there aren't any seats even listed on StubHub), chances are you won't get to heed this review, even if you want to. Which is a shame, because while the play itself is engaging if a tad confusing, it's the performances--not just by Shannon--that truly make this production shine.

The play opens with a 20-minute dialogue between old friends Shannon and Van Swearingen as old friends Carter and Vinnie.

Sharp-dressed, well-heeled and now residing in Kentucky, Carter visits Vinnie in his dingy apartment in Rancho Cucamonga, California, where the two had years ago been partners in horse racing schemes, which seemingly culminated in manipulating the dismissal of a racing official.

Although, as the Tribune's Chris Jones noted in his review, Van Swearingen is an honored lieutenant in the Chicago Fire Department and Shannon still doesn't qualify as a household name, it's hard not to imagine certain real-life parallels between them and their characters here.

Yet while Shannon is every bit as good as one could imagine, Van Swearingen is very much his equal--with Vinnie more likely the heart of the play--and it is a joy to watch the two of them act.

As well as the terrific supporting cast, including Mierka Girten as Cecilia, Vinnie's romantic interest, Doug Vickers as Simms, the disgraced racing official, and Jennifer Engstrom as Rosie, Carter's wife and formerly that of Vinnie. Kristin E. Ellis rounds out the cast as Kelly, a house servant for Rosie in Lexington, Kentucky, where some of the action shifts from California (and coincidentally, where Michael Shannon was born).

Although it was never uninteresting across two acts and 2-1/2 hours, the plotline is somewhat complicated, even convoluted. This is the first time I've come across this Shepard play, which feels a bit like a David Mamet movie.

I'm not even exactly clear how everything unfolds at the end, but while this may be a bit insulting to say about a work by one of America's most esteemed playwrights, Simpatico seems to work better as a character study and acting showcase than as a coherent, suspenseful narrative.

So I won't tell you anymore that happens, even if I could, but the storyline specifics are not why I'm recommending Simpatico, and in fact account for my @@@@ (out of 5) rating, when the performances themselves merit more.

Some might think seeing a movie star in a 75-seat theater is a treat, but really, just seeing acting this good --and while everyone is terrific, the magnetic Shannon is front & center, even if with considerably less stage time in Act II--in an intimate setting is well-worth the (full) price of admission.

If you can get a ticket.

I'm glad I did.

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