REVIEW: Just An Ordinary Man (Steppenwolf Theatre)

More like extra-ordinary

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:
Just an Ordinary Man
written and performed by Joe Frank
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
performed March 13th
(more info)
reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

On March 13, Santa Monica-based NPR broadcaster and monologist Joe Frank took his peculiar sense of humor to the stage at Steppenwolf for a very special one-night event. The night was organized by ensemble member Terry Kinney, and sold out three days in advance, according to Mr. Frank’s facebook page. His large Chicago fan base stems from his Sunday night radio show on WBEZ. His work is dreamlike, surreal and very, very funny. For his performance Saturday night, Mr. Frank read a piece from 2008 “Just An Ordinary Man.” He sat behind a desk, with at trashcan to his left and a glass of whiskey to his right and read aloud his 90-minute surreal monologue, without even taking one sip of water. On the opposite end of the stage, his musical accompanist James Harrah wailed on electric guitar at all the right moments. The only other set piece was a large movie screen, on which a short film was projected about halfway through the evening.

Joe Frank’s work is hilarious and profound. He has an uncanny ability to create a world of darkness, and then crack the tension with highly absurd comedy. Yet this alone does not encompass his writing style. It’s unhinged yet poignant. Often, the tales will lead to a metaphorical ending. For example, one story in the program is about a man who owns the largest telescope in the world, a dreamlike and abstract notion, and ends with the haunting, real world revelation, “You can’t see the entire universe in the daytime.” This particular show focuses on the passing of time, the loss of love and art, among many, many other things. It is very loosely framed by love letters from “Just An Ordinary Man” to the woman he is clearly stalking, but whom he considers to be his first love. His stories morph into one another, and are often separated by a guitar solo that leads into Mr. Frank picking up anew.

At one point on Saturday night, Joe Frank riffed on the word “meaning” as it relates to art. Meaning is important, he conjectured, but if there is too much meaning, then the thing loses all it’s meaning. His exhausting repetition of the word “meaning” rendered the word, (you guessed it) meaningless, transforming the word into the antithesis of its definition. This kind of insightful sculpting of words is more than a parlor trick: it is a profound and carefully orchestrated exploration of the English language and the boundaries of communication. Through the seemingly pointless speech, Mr. Frank made a clear point about intention and honesty in art. Finding this, the purest kind of communication, should always be the most rudimentary goal of theatre, although that intention is often overshadowed, perhaps in the quest of that little thing Mr. Frank finds so fascinating: meaning. Mr. Frank’s work forgets to be consumed with political or social import and instead explores the human mind.

The silent short film directed by Paul Rachman and featuring Linda Carol and Joe Frank bisected the evening. The film was projected behind Mr. Frank as he read aloud the narration. It was a clever and charming piece that flowed with the performance nicely, especially because of how in sync Frank’s reading was with the film behind him. The visual component was a refreshing addition to what was otherwise an evening of watching Mr. Frank read. The words were intended to be the stars of the evening, and the performance perfectly matched the radio show in tone, although a stronger visual component would have been nice.

Unfortunately. Mr. Frank has no scheduled dates to return to Chicago, but there are still opportunities to hear his work. His radio show airs in syndication every Sunday night at 11 PM on WBEZ and archives of his radio show are available on his website


Rating:  ★★★½

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: