Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Road to Anywhere: 'Bob: A Life in Five Acts' Heads in Interesting Directions, a Bit Too Chaotically -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bob: A Life in Five Acts
by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
directed by Will Quam & Derek Bertelsen
The Comrades
at Apollo Studio Theater, Chicago

In a 1923 discussion about Cubism, Pablo Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

My interpretation of this is that art—be it rendered through fractional figures, paintings of harlequins, wildly distorted faces, etc., or plays or stories or movies or music or dance or however else—typically doesn’t depict the precise realities of our everyday lives, yet it nonetheless reflects common experiences and universal truths in imaginatively representational ways.

Sometimes art can be rather realistically identifiable to our own existences, but practitioners with great inventiveness—e.g. Picasso—may wildly warp reality while still reflecting it, as challenging and confounding as this may be to some audiences.

Undoubtedly, there could be—and have been—far more straightforward ways to address the meaning of life and one's search for a sense of purpose & place than Peter Sinn's Nachtrieb's play, Bob: A Life of Five Acts, currently being staged in Chicago by The Comrades theater troupe. 

Photo credit on all: Cody Jolly
The current movie, Lady Bird, for example, chronicles a teenage girl's quest for love, friendship, individuality, acceptance, cultural passions, connection with her mother and venturing beyond the known in ways that don't seem particularly novel. 

Yet as written & directed by Greta Gerwig and acted in the lead role by Saoirse Ronan, it is tremendously compelling, poignant, powerful and probably the best American film of 2017. 

That the film’s characters feel just a tad more like artistic archetypes than everyday people we are apt to encounter is due in large part to stellar work by not only Ronan but three legendary members of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble: Laurie Metcalfe, Tracy Letts and Lois Smith.

Bob, as I’ll call the play at hand from here on out, takes a far more unique tack in exploring an individual’s longing for purpose, achievement, advancement, exploration, etc.

At the beginning of the first act—of a 90 minute play with no breaks—the titular character (Raymond Jaquet) is born and left in White Castle restroom, where he is found by an employee named Janine (Angela Horn, though like all 4 cast members besides Jaquet she rotates through several roles), who decides to raise him, even if it means going on the lam in a beige Chevy Malibu, such as I once owned.

This odd birthplace scenario reminded me a bit of the movie/book Where the Heart Is—in a 6-degrees-of-separation coincidence, the novel is by Billie Letts, mother of Tracy, who of course is also a famed playwright—in which the central character gives birth in a Walmart.

From a young age, Janine instills in Bob the notion that he will become a great man, and this sets in motion an eternal road trip type quest to overtly realize this prophecy.

To reveal where this journey takes him, and who he meets along the way, would ruin much of the play’s fun, and Nachtrieb does present some humorous beyond-the-beaten-path scenarios.

It’s to the credit of the actors—including Brittany Stock, Bryan Renaud and Sara Jane Patin—that Bob is entertaining throughout and kept me curious about how Bob’s pursuits would unfold.

Under the artistic direction of Bertelsen, the Comrades have carved a nice niche by staging—typically in intimate surroundings for a low price on Sun/Mon/Tues nights—modern plays that would seem to resonate with millennials newly exploring the wonders of live theater.

Without wishing to sound snobbish or dismissive, I prefer plays that—likely in sacrificing a bit of hipness—hit somewhat harder and delve a good deal deeper than Bob does.

Having seen his takes on The Children’s Hour and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Bertelsen—who co-directs here with with Will Quam—certainly knows his way around such works, old and new. But like some past Comrades' productions, Bob seems to skew to younger audiences, and that's quite logical and welcome, even if I wasn't all that smitten.

A pre-show recording of Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” nicely sets the stage for Bob: A Life in Five Acts, but ultimately George Harrison’s “Any Road”—with the lyric “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”—seems more apt as among his offbeat adventures and often frenzied encounters, we get no real sense of what Bob greatly wants, or wants to do...greatly.

Perhaps leading to why a fine effort failed to provide me with much insight, about Bob’s life or mine, was that the characters—primarily but not just the main one—never seem to find time for much, or any, introspection amid the quest for greatness.

I really don't think it ruins much to share that Bob ultimately discovers that one's life is made estimable not so much by what we achieve as by those we love & impact, and vice-versa.

If not exactly a new or unexpected revelation—which is only part of the play's resolution—I found it accurate, identifiable and even inspiring.

But the circuitous, at times over-the-top way Bob comes to such an understanding not only feels less engaging & effective than the plainer path of Lady Bird, it also didn't connect with me as much as another similarly-themed yet even more obtuse work I recently once again saw live, Stephen Sondheim's musical, Into the Woods.

Though the "lie" there is far more preposterous than anything presented in Bob: A Life in Five Acts—fairy tale characters venture into a forest with hopes of enhancing their lives—the universal truths that are exposed, while thematically akin to those here, also wind up being more cogent.

Which is all a rather convoluted way of conveying that while I was happy to have seen Bob—and would even recommend it to audiences a good bit less old and curmudgeonly than me—I ultimately didn't love it.

And just to end with a small quibble from a huge Cubs fan...

It seems Nachtrieb wrote Bob: A Life in Five Acts in 2010 and it premiered in 2011 at The Humana Festival for New American Plays in Louisville—the locale of Bob's birthplace White Castle—so it's understandable that there would be references within about Cubs fans longing for success that never seems to come. Such had obviously been the case, then and for decades.

But presumably due to a little localized tinkering to the script, there's a line near the beginning—and I'm paraphrasing—about how “Rizzo had overcome cancer to win it all.” 

A nice touch that made me smile, but it would seem to invalidate later references in the play to the Cubs' perpetual futility. I get that as it chronicles a 60+ year life in 90 minutes, the play isn't stringent in avoiding anachronisms, and this "continuity issue" is entirely minor, but it just felt a touch contradictory.

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

Meaning? Love. Work. Fun. That's it.