Monday, July 16, 2018

The Reshaping of Water: Michael Shannon & Co. Elevate Ionesco's 'Victims of Duty' in A Red Orchid Reprise -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Victims of Duty
by Eugène Ionesco
directed by Shira Piven
A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 5

The late French playwright Eugène Ionesco was known as one of the pioneering and principal practitioners of Theater of the Absurd.

If a Wikipedia description can be trusted, in absurdist plays, "logical construction and argument gives way to irrational and illogical speech."

Although I love surrealistic paintings and theoretically appreciate things that "are different," I admittedly struggle with the avant garde, overly interpretive and/or non-linear when it comes to movies and live entertainment.

While I've enjoyed several plays by Edward Albee and, generally, Christopher Nolan's abstractions--e.g. Memento, Inception--too much confusion has left me cold about works by Samuel Beckett, a rather incoherent Tennessee Williams' play called Camino Real, performance theater such as Fuerza Bruta, films like Mother, Melancholia and The Tree of Life and a dreamlike modern ballet recently done by the Joffrey.

Photo credit on all current production photos: fadeout foto
Basically, if I "don't get it," I don't love it, and once I find things hard to follow, my focus tends to wander.

I realize this may sound rather simplistic, but even if not so proudly, my proclivities are for the more easily digestible.

So although I believe it important to occasionally challenge yourself, the opportunity to see an Ionesco play is not what drew me to the 80-seat A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago's Old Town.

No, quite candidly, I was excited to attend Victims of Duty because I wanted to see Michael Shannon act live on stage.

I won't pretend not to be star struck, fascinated by celebrity, beguiled by local heroes, etc.

But my answer to the question "Who is the world's best actor, right now?" would--with deference to Mssrs. De Niro, Hoffman, Duvall, Pacino and other legends of that ilk, and still ruing the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman--most likely be:

"Michael Shannon."

So it isn't just that the soon-to-turn 44-year-old, Evanston-bred actor has starred in numerous notable films--favorites of mine include Take Shelter, 99 Homes, Midnight Special and 2017's The Shape of Water--and been Oscar-nominated twice.

With no disrespect--and plenty of admiration--meant to his longtime and current A Red Orchid colleagues, I'm not sure there is anyone (especially if were only talking men in this sentence) any better at his craft, both on film and in theater, which he clearly still loves.

This was actually the fifth time I've seen Shannon, dating back to 1993 in Tracy Letts' Killer Joe at Evanston's Next Theater Lab, before I had any clue who he would become.

I also saw him in one of my favorite plays--Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, at Steppenwolf in 2006--and in Craig Wright's Lady the next year at Northlight.

And even after he became a major film star, in 2013 he came back to A Red Orchid to star in Sam Shepard's Simpatico with Guy Van Swearingen and Mierka Gierten--both also in Victims of Duty--and I felt lucky to get a ticket.

Lest you think I'm the only one largely drawn by Shannon, the entire run of Victims of Duty is already sold out.

As such, I realize this review barely even matters.

But Michael Shannon, at times less than a foot away from the audience, is--without ever hogging the spotlight--every bit as good as you'd hope he'd be.

Also quite superlative are Van Swearingen and an astonishing Karen Aldridge as Choubert and Madeline, a married couple who begin Victims of Duty casually chatting among each other as he reads a newspaper. (A full bathtub sits amid them, but neither is in it, yet.)

Along with other topics, they discuss contemporary entertainment--Ionesco wrote this play in 1953--with Choubert opining that "there has never been much evolution in the theater" and that "all plays are the same," typically involving a detective and a readily-solvable riddle.

Soon, an actual detective--played by Shannon--is in their midst, asking if they know a man named Mallot or Mallod, with T or D at the end key to the inquiry.

The interrogation continues, and Choubert is pushed deep into the recesses of his memory. With disturbing recollections about his father and mother, lines of reality get considerably blurred.

Not only did I occasionally wonder, "Is this real?" but even just, "What the heck is going on?"

I can't tell you that I found the storyline itself either clear or fantastic, though per the definition of Theater of the Absurb, my confusion was probably part of the point.

And while how I can see how the play's totalitarian themes are quite resonant today, I thought overt touches--such as waving small American flags and at one point depicting a member of Trump's cabinet in the video backdrop--felt unnecessary.

But not only was the acting outstanding, with both a bathtub and small pool onstage everyone--including acclaimed movie star Michael Shannon--winds up absolutely soaked.

To the point that, at a matinee I wondered if they wouldn't catch cold and have to miss subsequent performances.

Victims of Duty is a one-act play of about 90 minutes, and much of the way through do two other characters appear.

One is a mysterious woman played by Gierten, and the other is the rather philosophical Nicholas d'Eu, embodied with bristling outrage by the always stellar Richard Cotovsky.

With my @@@@ (out of 5) rating, I am trying to incorporate a fair assessment the play itself, including my understanding and appreciation of it.

But I believe it both true and valid that one can attend and enjoy live theater for reasons that go beyond the particular merits of the piece being performed.

Here you had the chance to see a famous actor as close up as can be, and he was phenomenal.

But this wasn't just Michael Shannon doing a play in a small room, this was him--along with Van Swearingen and director Shira Piven--reprising a play A Red Orchid had done back in 1995.

And as A Red Orchid is celebrating its 25th anniversary--still in its original location at 1531 N. Wells--that two of the five cast members are holdovers, a third (Gierten) is also an ARO ensemble member, the luminous Aldridge brings tons of great local & Broadway credits and Cotovsky--long the artistic director of Mary-Arrchie Theater--is a local legend, well all that too makes this something special to behold.

If I was confused, so be it.

I was also mesmerized, astonished, appreciative, a bit concerned for the actors' health and perhaps just a bit more embracing of the absurd.

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