REVIEW: The Water Engine: An American Fable (Theatre 7)

  
  

Suspenseful Mamet play recalls 1930s Chicago

 
 

Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven

   
Theatre Seven presents
 
The Water Engine: An American Fable
   
By David Mamet
Directed by Brian Golden
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through Dec. 19  | 
Tickets: $12–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Set in Chicago in 1934, David Mamet’s rarely mounted 1977 drama, The Water Engine: An American Fable, currently in a beautifully nuanced production by Theatre Seven, takes us back in time to the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Charles Lang, a punch-press operator in a factory by day, dreamy inventor by night, has created an engine that runs on pure water. He dreams it will put an end to factories and bring him a peaceful life in the country with his unworldly sister.

Brett Lee in Water Engine - Theatre SevenChicago history buffs, alternate-history fans and anyone who enjoys great, intimate theater should take this show in. While it’s set too late to be steampunk, this arguably science-fictional play has a similar feel. Brenda Windstead’s 1930s costumes and John Wilson’s sound-stage set transport us to another time, one that almost-but-not-quite existed.

But "autres temps, autres moeurs" does not apply here. In fact, it’s business very much as usual. In his effort to patent his invention, Lang runs afoul of a scheming shyster who tries to sell him and his creation into nefarious corporate hands. I don’t doubt that many would-be world-shaking discoveries meet similar fates today.

Although the plot is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, and Mamet brings in all sorts of fascinating sidelines, such as a recurring theme about a chain letter, period-style advertising and the world’s fair itself. The action cris-crosses Chicago, from the fairgrounds to still-extant spots such as the Aragon Ballroom and Bughouse Square.

Mamet originally wrote this short script, which runs about 80 minutes without intermission, as a radio play, and Director Brian Golden’s exciting staging effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways. His cast includes Theatre Seven company members Dan McArdle, Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and George Zerante, as well as Brett Lee, Lindsey Pearlman, Cody Proctor, Alina Tabor, Jessica Thigpen and Travis Williams.

Charles Lang in Water Engine - Theatre SevenEach cast member plays multiple roles in this play within a radio play. In fact, the 10 cast members portray over 40 parts, skillfully depicting radio actors, principals in the radio play and random Chicagoans in wonderful character sketches.

In the longest role, Proctor plays Lang with well-executed, nervous nerdiness. Zerante smarms as the crooked lawyer, and Williams menaces as the corporation muscle. Pearlman delightfully segues from refined actress to ranging street-corner orator to gruff storekeeper. Newcomer Tabor adds wide-eyed youthful charm.

The whole ensemble works together like a well-oiled machine.

 
   
Rating: ★★★★   
   
   

Cassy Sanders, Travis Williams, Jessica Thigpen, Brian Stojak, Lindsey Pearlman

All photos by Heather Stumpf

 

 

   
   

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Review: side project’s “Rewind

‘Rewind’: exquisite production, downer play

 

Prod - Noah, Jim, Elisha, Scaff - couch 3

The side project theatre company presents:

Rewind

By Laura Eason
Directed by Anna C. Bahow
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They were the next big thing in rock. But Noah walked away. Elisha married that asshole. And now Jim’s dead — leaving them all to wonder — ‘How did we get here?'”

Prod - Noah, Jim and Elisha - couch That spoiler comes straight out of promotions for Rewind, up-and-coming Chicago playwright Laura Eason’s new play, now in world-premiere by the side project, in Rogers Park, so I’m not giving anything away. The trouble with plays that start at the end is that they tend to lack suspense.

While the flashback can be an effective theatrical technique to fill audiences in on the back story, it can go too far. This play doesn’t flashback so much as reverse crawl.

Partly inspired by the playwright’s own experiences in Chicago’s indie music scene and influenced by the 1996 suicide of Jim Ellison, front man for the Chicago power pop trio Material Issue, Rewind begins in 1998, when the members of his onetime band, childhood friend Noah and ex-lover Elisha, find the body of Jim, a talented but troubled and unsuccessful songwriter and musician. Then the drama steps back — rewinds, get it? — through the threesome’s life to the band’s beginnings in 1981.

We wait for some startling revelation or inspiring moment, but none appear. What we get is an old, old story — familiar to anyone who knows anything about the music business: Talent is not enough; you also need perseverance, responsibility, belief in yourself and a good deal of luck.

As the play progresses backwards, we see the band’s deteriorating relationships; Jim’s insecurity over whether his music is really good enough; issues of personal loyalty vs. business expediency; troubles with their record label; their opportunistic manager; the bitter contrast of a younger musician achieving the success that’s eluded them; and, finally, their hopeful start. The depressing history of a million failed garage bands.

Prod - Noah, Jim and Ray - couch 2

Side project presents the play in its typically flawless way — perhaps unintentionally reinforcing the theme: Fine acting, an effective set and excellent staging and direction aren’t enough, either.

Chip Davis is suitably intense as Jim, and Zach Buell nicely expressive as his always-supportive pal, Noah. Cyd Blakewell plays the somewhat selfish Elisha with just the right blend of innocence and self-interest. Supporting actors Shane Kenyon and Brett Schneider do good work as well.

Sound Designer Misha Fiksel hunted out local music from the period (a pity it’s only used incidentally). Set Designer Annette Vargas dappled the 30-seat theater with bright spray-paint graffiti and hung the walls with colorful band posters from Chicago print house Screwball Press that list all local indie music spots of the period: Lounge Ax, Double Door, the Empty Bottle, the Aragon Ballroom.

The audience sits on two sides of the intimate stage, where Director Anna C. Bahow makes adept use of the few stage furnishings to convey 17 different scenes. She moves her cast in and out with exquisite pacing.

Yet although Rewind is performed without intermission in just 90 minutes, its utter predictability makes it seem much longer.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Note: Allow time to find street parking.