Sunday, January 29, 2012

THAT LOWLINESS IS YOUNG AMBITION'S LADDER -- 'Enron' at TimeLine Theatre Company

Few foes have ever clashed as violently as Art and Business. The animosity felt by both groups is bitterly menacing, and has been, I assume, since the dawn of agrarian society. Modern artists loathe the insinuation that in order to sustain comfort, their art must be a lifestyle and a business. And businessmen today fear the encroaching necessity of theatrics in the workplace, with the most successful corporate giants like Steve Jobs and Jeff Zebos being equal parts performer and genius.

Despite these apparent realities, the two worlds cannot and will not see eye to eye. But Lucy Prebble's Enron, which is receiving its Chicago premiere at TimeLine Theatre Company, makes entirely understandable, to the artist, the plight of the 1% , and, more shockingly, the hidden, surreal art of a deregulated free market economy. TimeLine's Enron reconsiders Jeff Skilling, C.O.O. of Enron and the greatest financial villain of modern history, as an epic visionary who changed the world, for better or worse.

Enron is not your typical staged docudrama with melodramatic rambling that rings of Lifetime TV, but a visually poetic and untraditional parable. Jeffery Skilling, Andrew Fastow, Kenneth Lay, and the fictional embodiment of Enron's women, Claudia Roe, all exist in a fantasy world that they themselves created. A world of velociraptors, ventriloquists, human-sized blind mice, and yes, unrelenting reality.

Prebble's astonishingly effective story gradually discovers that business and theatre are synonymous rather than juxtaposing. Both exist within a nexus of harsh truth and romantic deception, and remind us that sometimes what is truth and what is deception are semantic arguments. Rather than theatre vilifying business with cheap stereotype and confounding lingua mathematica, Prebble has crafted a gem using familiar and frightfully fun theatrical archetypes and shockingly evocative imagery. She finds common ground in their mutually unyielding passion and desire. Unfathomable beauty is revealed beneath the coldly numerical business guise, creating characters of divisive and uncomfortable likability.

Jeffery Skilling, the leader of Enron and the foremost corporate puppeteer of the twentieth century, ends the play a damaged man with a complicated legacy; not an evil monster, not a symbol, but one man who fell.

Putting up Enron in a space as fascinatingly claustrophobic as TimeLine closes one door and opens another. The grandiose aestheticism of Enron screams out for a big stage and a big budget; it's a hefty story with towering figures and themes. Appropriately TimeLine is about the size of a corner office, and that intimacy grounds the less expressionistic scenes in a tense reality. However, the tight space becomes a thorn in the production's side when the scenes change. The switch from realism to expressionism is a bit clunky, and occasionally the intentionally jarring becomes the unintentional joke.

But that is a worthwhile sacrifice, and director Rachel Rockwell's new production, though perhaps slightly too minimal, is a lively retelling of one of modern history's grandest crimes. And the staging, though condensed, does all it can to assume that massive atmosphere. The production transitions using clever, schizophrenic choreography, displaying the well-oiled wheels of a corporation while also revealing subtle cracks in the company’s façade. The actors move through the show skillfully as humans, reptiles, and sideshows, but always retaining a truthful core.

Actor Bret Tuomi's portrayal of Jeff Skilling is painful and triumphant to watch. The character experiences the American Dream in its most idealized form, and falls with the weight of a modern Greek tragedy. Tuomi lives these these moments with a universally familiar drive and ambition that exists within all of us. His warm humanity, and in particular the sweetness of his relationship with his young daughter (played on video by an amazingly gifted Caroline Heffernan) gives this Enron its powerful resonance.

While there wasn't one woman at the core of the Enron scandal, Prebble saw the importance of women in the story and created an enveloping character, Claudia Roe. Amy Matheny as Roe has that simultaneously over-femine and and weirdly androgeonous presence that characterizes so many of our female power players. There is also brave vulnerability behind her power, making her, even in times of defeat, one of the strongest characters onstage.

The ensemble has a difficult job with Enron, weaving through a ménage of styles, characterizations, and terribly diverse movement patterns. While most perform with uniform cohesion, Christopher Allen and Benjamin Sprunger's two headed Lehman Brother was a true lesson in listening.

Enron is dependent on extremes; extremes of style and emotional height. The first image of the play is the Three Blind Mice adorned in black business suits, attempting to traverse the stage; confidently leading the audience into an unknown void, with concern for no one but themselves.

The play requires a high level of technical wizardry in order to reinforce its twenty-first century themes, and TimeLine delivers a sharp concentrate of impressive design to this end. Kevin O’Donnell’s trance-y sound design and original music works in tandem with Projection Designer Mike Tutaj’s dreamlike video sequences to build a hazy, nineties circus. A lot of humor is elicited from their familiar cultural backdrop, but also a lot of horror.

Of course, there is a great deal of pressure on costume designer Elizabeth Flauto to, not only create a slew of nineties period costumes (yes, period…), but also to weave raptors and gigantic mice into the world believably. She does this with razor sharp precision and overblown theatricality. The raptors in particular gave my body an overwhelmingly creeped-out chill.

Enron failed miserably on Broadway only two years ago largely because of across-the-pond resentment. We wanted George III out of our domestic affairs, and so too did New York critics want Lucy Prebble out of theirs. But TimeLine's Enron has no haughty air of judgement or whitewash of cynicism. What could be perceived as anti-American ideas - a parade of circus characters like a ventriloquist Arthur Anderson and a two-headed Lehman Brother - is not a critique of America, but rather a larger-than-life metaphor for just how whipped Skilling had these people; his pawns.

Prebble does make the occasional jab at the foreboding presidency of George W. Bush. And given George Bush's known connections to Enron and Kenneth Lay, she would be doing a disservice to the story by omitting it. Still, some may see her observations as a condemnation of American decision-making, and that is their perception. But Prebble's insights are certainly agreed upon by most, if not all, theatergoers. Perhaps we just don't want to hear them out loud. But hear them, we must.-Johnny Oleksinski

‘Enron’ runs at TimeLine Theatre Company through April 15.