Saturday, August 28, 2010

'Republic County' Kills the Poets, Brings the Laughter

Theater Review

Republic County
a play by Joe Musso
Euphoria Productions at Gorilla Tango Theatre, Chicago
2-show run ends today

Last night I saw a play called Republic County, which I had heard about solely because a friend of mine named Bob Rashkow had earned a role in it.

Produced and directed by Lauren Hallie Muellner, it was performed at Chicago's Gorilla Tango Theatre, a venue that specializes in hosting short runs of shows by troupes that rent it out. On a given night, up to five separate works are presented.

As such, although this production of Republic County--written by Joe Musso, a writer unaffiliated with the people putting it on--technically counts as professional theater, it it about as far from Broadway as the term stretches. Yet, although I cannot call it phenomenal or quite brilliant, I can say that well beyond my admiration for those involved, I enjoyed it--more, in fact, than at least one play I saw on Broadway and several that I've seen at Goodman and Steppenwolf.

Feeling more like a long-form comedy sketch than a fully-realized narrative, the show is a modern-day satire involving an unemployment office in fictional Republic County, whose rising jobless rate causes the office manager (well-played by Falynn Victoria Burton) to be threatened with a pink slip of her own by an ogre of a district manager (Rashkow, who does a good job of characterizing pompous irascibility without being too much of a caricature).

As the office manager and her assistant, Candy (Jessie Mutz), welcome a string of shiftless job seekers, also known as poets--among them Walt Whitman (Arne Saupe), Emily Dickinson (Mackenzie Wiglesworth), Edgar Allen Poe (Danny Martinez) and Henry David Thoreau (Volen Iliev)--madness ensues, not just as the legendary linguists literally cite chapter & verse about their situation or because Lizzie Borden (Angelica Cano) occasionally shows up with an axe, but because it is decided that the best solution to lowering the unemployment rate is poetricide.

With more onstage blood spillage and--in a weird way, correspondingly--more laugh-out-loud moments than any play I've seen since Martin McDonagh's masterful The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Republic County went over quite well with the audience, and not just because it was comprised primarily of cast members' friends & family. Everyone in the show delivered performances that were well-beyond credible and I genuinely liked it.

To the point that in feeling justified in writing a positive review--it would've seemed wrong to publicly bash Bob's big debut--I do feel it's fair to point out a few flaws. While understanding that it's meant (or so I presume) as farce--and as one of the currently unemployed, appreciating some of the sentiment--I don't think Republic Country is sharply focused enough (or shrewd enough) in its societal message.

And while having Poe, Whitman and Thoreau (the eternally bashful Dickinson is mute throughout, sans one word at the end a la Marcel Marceau in Silent Movie) only speak lines from their famous works is a quite humorous conceit, Musso doesn't even attempt to give a backstory about how they (or Lizzie) landed in modern-day Republic County. If taken simply as a 90-minute comedy skit, this is fine, and a laugh is a laugh. But as the script feels like something that with some refinements, could become decidedly smarter and more pointed, for now it seems like too much dramatic (and poetic) license is taken for Republic County to truly be considered "legitimate theater."

But it is a decidedly good time, and while in this case closing night was planned to come just a day after opening night--meaning you won't have a chance to see this rendition--hopefully when you go to see something because a friend or relative is in it, it will be every bit as worthwhile.

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