Review: Terre Haute (Black Elephant Theatre)

  
  

Two extremes create their own middle

  
  

Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

  
Black Elephant Theatre presents
  
Terre Haute
  
Written by Edmund White
Directed by Michael Rashid
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

What if brilliant gadfly Gore Vidal (here called “James”) and mass murdering domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh (“Harrison”) had actually met, instead of simply corresponding with each as happened? The very speculative results are on harsh display for 90 minutes, the setting a basically bare stage that suggests the prison contact area where they might have met. It’s neutral ground between opposites that attract in this Chicago premiere of a very telling, if imaginary, encounter between American poles.

Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.71 and suffering from osteosclerosis as he hobbles on a cane with characteristic dignity, Vidal, radical politico and openly, if not happily, gay (a richly nuanced Danne W. Taylor), is drawn to his seeming nemesis (despite being repelled by all of Indiana).

(It’s much as Truman Capote was to the multiple murderer Perry Smith or straight Norman Mailer was to killer Gary Gilmore. All three great writers seemed to shadow the executions of their subjects, though, unlike vultures, their interest was in how they faced the end, not the aftermath.)

28, unrepentant, and possibly a virgin, Cole Simon’s macho McVeigh is attractive and forbidding enough to make daredevil Vidal want to kiss him or at least touch his prison-toned chest. (So it goes at least in this fictionalized treatment by Edmund White.) Showing his usual perverse sympathy with the devil, Vidal understands that the sociopathic white supremacist/survivalist was in fact avenging an equally gratuitous slaughter of scores of supposedly innocent citizens at Ruby Ridge and Waco (exactly three years before McVeigh’s 1995 bombing).

They both find common ground in their distrust of the government and the elites who own it. Vidal fears that the American republic is endangered by the American empire and the “constant warfare” by which the populace is distracted from being raped by the rich. McVeigh dreads a “New World Order” in which the U.N. will invade America and give it up to its Jewish “owners” while enslaving the “true” citizens, deprived of guns with which to fight back. For him no sacrifice is too great to thwart the coup, including losing his life to a lethal injection. He calls it a “state-assisted suicide.”

But, as Vidal tapes McVeigh’s halting confessional, it’s clear what really unites them—what Vidal calls “the American loneliness.” Though Vidal argues that life is sacred (even if he’s an unbeliever) and McVeigh dismisses the 19 children his 7,000 fertilizer bomb killed as “collateral damage,” they both agree on the alienation they feel from and for their native land. Both are veterans who distrust the U.S. military and the constant surveillance of civilian authorities. Both are nearing death: Vidal loves life enough to fear it but, like a true jihadist, McVeigh has already crossed to the dark side: The execution will only finish the journey. Most interestingly, McVeigh reminds Vidal of his first lover Bud, who was equally eager to find easy answers and immediate gratification.

     
Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White. Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.
Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.  Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Director Michael Rashid does a fine job of using body language and the caged pacing of inmate and interviewer to reveal the intricate psychodynamics that connect and repel them. (They have a ferocious donnybrook that oddly resembles a lover’s quarrel.) When Gore finally mentions the broken bodies of the many victims, McVeigh almost sees them for the first time, far more real than any abstraction of anti-government revenge could ever be.

It’s not exactly a meeting of minds. McVeigh is too much the militia-minded thug of action to be any more than a nightmare clad in flesh. But, despite its highly imaginative pretend-encounter, Terre Haute goes far to explaining how much American extremes—Vidal’s kneejerk cynicism about American ideals and McVeigh’s lethal paranoia and self-pity—seem to deserve each other. Most of us are happy enough to live in between.

     
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Terre Haute runs through April 10th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and are available online or by calling 800-982-2787. Terre Haute runs 80-minute with no intermission.

     
     

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REVIEW: Gross Indecency – Oscar Wilde (Black Elephant)

A Modern Take on Indecency


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Black Elephant Theatre presents
 
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
 
Written by Moises Kaufman
Directed by
Michael Rashid
Raven Theatre West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through November 14 | tickets: $18-$22   | more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

We humans love a good scandal. We love to put people on the pedestal of fame and notoriety and then topple the perch. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde puts a modern slant on the Victorian era scandal that was made of Wilde’s personal life. There is a preamble of sorts set in present day at the Green Carnation Bar on karaoke night. The Green Carnation is a gay bar and the men are mostly Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant Theatre 015 young and a study in beauty. The characters are happily drunk and indulging in what could be at best naughty behavior but the fact that they are all men still leaves a dangerous edge to this drama.

The walls of the bar are covered in art that scandalized the Victorians. Aubrey Beardsley’s line drawings of engorged phalluses are joined by a portrait of a Greek boy, an absinthe advertisement, and, of course, Oscar Wilde at his languid best. This preamble serves as an unnecessary distraction – we are not needing a peek behind the walls of what is no longer forbidden, and I find drunken karaoke to only be fun when I am also inebriated. When the lights finally go down, the people in the bar become the characters in Oscar Wilde’s indecency trial.

Wilde made no secret of his love for young men and found a willing partner in Lord Alfred Douglas who he affectionately called Bosie. The Marquis of Queensbury , Bosie’s father, called Wilde a Sodomite and was subsequently sued for libel. It is certain that Wilde was more upset at being called something so common. He was also famous for his wit and aestheticism. To be a mere Sodomite was beneath Mr. Wilde.

The actors portray historical characters with a farcical quality and post modern edge. Mark LeBeau Jr. speaks the dialogue of Sir Edward Clark as if he were in a screwball comedy of the 1930’s – talky and fast.  Unfortunately LeBeau garbles some of his words, and the staging has his back to the audience for some his scene.

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Casey Chapman is glorious to watch as Sir Alfred Douglas-Wilde’s beloved Bosie. Chapman portrays a glowering and somewhat petulant Douglas who defies his father and revels in his sexuality in the times when even the piano legs were covered in the parlor. Chapman looks the part of an aristocrat in his carriage and his enunciation. He and Kevin Bishop as Oscar Wilde bring erotic shading to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. The fact that the staging is in a modern bar takes away the bodice ripping illusion of Victorian times.

Danne W. Taylor is menacing as the Marquis. He dons an eye patch for the role and it is a nice addition. In one moment Taylor is the chicken hawk in the bar and in the next a hypocrite with a title disowning his son.

Jake Szczepaniak is great comic relief as George Bernard Shaw. It is known that Shaw was a champion for equal rights and quite the curmudgeon, but his appearance is a welcome non sequitur to the proceedings.

Alex Polcyn plays one of the judges to great comic effect as well. The hypocrisy of the times and the ridiculous nature of making an example of one man is a great premise for a farce. Polcyn dons a U.K. style court wig and orates like a Monty Python character. The timing and elocution are perfect and a lot of fun to watch in spite of the heavy subject matter.

Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 013 In the second act, Kevin Bishop is seen more as Wilde. He is wonderful in the role and portrays Wilde’s famous wit and refusal to be common. Michael B. Woods is very funny as the cardigan -wearing judge in Wilde’s trial that sends him to prison. Woods is the quiet and observant bartender for most of the play and then transforms into a perfect vision of a cranky old man banging on the table for order in the court.

It is fortunate that the comic moments are in this production. Wilde was funny and acerbic with little tolerance for fools. Moises Kaufman incorporates a lot of the trial and Wilde quotes, but runs a bit on the talky side. It’s a razor-thin balance that Kaufman’s dialogue treads. He attempts to show how anyone’s life can be misconstrued as a criminal act just by how they choose to live. Black Elephant Theatre uses the subtitle ‘love is a crime’, recalling the early days of the AIDS epidemic when gay men were targeted as the means by which a plague was unloosed. The same thing happened to Oscar Wilde and just as painful and ignominious death awaited him when he was released from prison.

Michael Rashid’s direction is skillful, though one wonders what he could have done if time were shaved off of the production and if farce and drama were more seamlessly blended. At times the action feels like one of the Beardsley’s exaggerated drawings, and  then suddenly it’s as murky as the absinthe that Wilde supposedly imbibed.

I recommend this production with a caveat. Unless you dig watching drunken karaoke, take a pass on the pre-show. It’s meant to get the audience into the mind frame of the times and the characters, but it adds more time to a production that clocks in at two hours without karaoke.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is a presentation of Black Elephant Theatre and runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sundays at 8:30pm through November 14th. The production is located in the West Stage of the Raven Theatre Complex at 6157 N. Clark St. in Chicago. A trailer of the play and more information is available at www.blackelephanttheatre.com

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