Tuesday, June 19, 2012

MISSED THE BOAT - 'Eastland' at Lookingglass Theatre Company

(Photo by Sean Williams)

There comes a moment in every drama depicting a disaster or grotesque societal injustice when the artists must “go there” – to that frightening, uncomfortable place that the audience collectively dreads in nervous anticipation. Scary, though it may be, that visceral high is an absolute necessity to truthfully relaying the past. In the grand human tradition of telling each other our stories, what’s passed down are deeply felt emotions; not rote facts and figures. To shy away from fear and to, instead, purify the controversial, messy subject matter, dishonors the event, its victims, and its fighters. “Eastland,” a new musical depicting the tragic 1915 sinking of the S.S. Eastland and which opened on Saturday night at Lookingglass Theatre Company, does not go there.

The sole, insurmountable problem facing “Eastland” is its gooey and sentimental, though uniquely structured, script by Lookingglass Artistic Director Andrew White. Written in sing-songy verse evoking T.S. Eliot and Dr. Seuss at their pluckiest, White’s book chooses caustic kindred gentility over the true grit of his circumstance. Just imagine the horror of drowning on a Chicago River cruise. I squirm when I merely catch a glimpse of kayakers on those murky waters, but to have that sooty grime cramming your lungs to unbearable capacity on a mockingly gorgeous summer’s day – with the intense pollution of the early twentieth century, no less – would be unfathomably hellish. It’s the discomfort I felt while writing those words that this altogether pleasant musical is missing entirely.

The musical – it’s really more of a play-with-music than a musical as Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman’s score (played by an upstage folk band) acts more so as tonal accompaniment than as advancement of character and plot – takes strong liberties with history to tell the story of several people who found themselves on the S.S. Eastland on that infamous day. White creatively intersperses traditional narrative storylines with folksy musical interludes and stylized storytelling deluges that confuse more than they confide. I connected quite intensely to the sweet, but melancholic storyline of Ilse a woman who finds herself in love with a man other than her husband. The heavy weight on her conscience was heartfelt and tremendously shared by actress Monica West, but that plot dissolves away much too quickly.

Another rather confounding story thread is the animalistic body diver Reggie (a giftedly mobile Doug Hara), who became known by the sensational media as “The Human Frog”. You will not forget this name. As Hara is suspended up in the air, muscularly miming actual swimming on a wire, he sings a strange cartoony anthem, “The Human Tadpole! The Human Frog!” The song is absolutely ridiculous, and frequently sung in-between Reggie’s equally ridiculous, imagined interactions with his main competitor, Harry Houdini (Derek Hasenstab).

Despite the musical’s glaring flaws, the entire cast is alive with a heartwarming generosity and willingness of spirit. Claire Wellin as Bobbie handles Pluess and Sussman’s overly verbose lyricism better than anyone else onstage, and wields an enduring strength of character behind her kind girlishness. Bobbie also imparts the gutsiest moments, as she is trapped below deck in the sinking ship. As the aforementioned man whom with Ilse becomes emotionally attached, Erik Hellman projects a warm, likable masculinity. And as the scapegoat Captain, Michael Barrow Smith offers relevant glimpses into the mind of the Costa Cruise Ship captain, whose ship similarly sunk of the coast of Tuscany earlier this year.

Director Amanda Dehnert crafts some fascinating images on Lookingglass’ reconfigured stage–manipulated by scenic designer, Dan Ostling to appear as a sandy revival tent complete with church pews, and gorgeously lit by Christine A. Binder with an extreme devotion to action–and moves the fractured story with cohesion and grace. A few of these images are actually quite affecting. As we discover which of the main characters perished in the disaster, their wardrobe, dripping with water, is suspended above the stage. But while impressive, and indisputably picturesque, it all feels like critic fodder. Sure it verges on honesty, but it remains coldly metaphoric like the most unapproachable of devised theatre.

Another moment of vanity that completely eluded me was when the tent’s walls, all at once, were yanked upwards and disappeared above our heads. I was personally reminded of “The Phantom of The Opera,” and “Cirque du Soleil,” among other hollow, meaningless stage trickery I’ve witnessed. You get a bang for your buck, I suppose, but is that really what it’s all about?

The production I saw was neither particularly illuminating nor entertaining, and as White has expressed taking strong liberties with the disaster’s true history to tell his story, one would assume the production would naturally fall into one of those two categories. Pluess and Sussman’s score is easy on the ears, but nothing all that memorable. The best and most corrupted song, “Into The River,” openly embraces the score’s folk origins as it tells the history of the Chicago River. But, nonetheless, the framework that “Eastland” has laid out has strong possibilities for a much more promising future. And this story, forlornly lost to time, certainly deserves it.

That being said, many members of the audience did seem to enjoy the play a great deal as it stands. Two women accosted myself and my companion as we were crossing Michigan Avenue afterwards, and enthusiastically begged of us, “What did you think?!” Their beaming smiles faded when I coyly responded, “It was all right.” But the most telling aspect of that interaction was that they were smiling at all. –Johnny Oleksinski

‘Eastland’ runs at Lookingglass Theatre Company through July 29.