Review: Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Fake”

Strong performances fail to compensate for a less-than-compelling script

Photographer: Mark Campbell

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

Fake

written and directed by Eric Simonson
thru November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Richard Millward

Fake-09 Fake, Steppenwolf’s season opener, written and directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson, explores the well-known scientific hoax "Piltdown Man." Initially thought to be the "missing link" and a confirmation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, suspicions about Piltdown’s authenticity cropped up almost immediately and continued to fester until, in 1953, with more modern dating techniques, Piltdown Man was conclusively proven to be a fake. The identity of the fossil’s forger has never been conclusively proven, although it is widely believed to be Charles Dawson, Piltdown Man’s "discoverer."

Simonson juxtaposes two stories, one set in the years following the fossil’s discovery, and a second at the time the hoax is confirmed. Both are fiction, although the earlier story does involve historical personages Dawson, Charles Woodward, director of the prestigious British Museum, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit archaeologist of some note, and author and amateur scientist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Fake-10 Fake-11
Fake-08 Fake-12

Unfortunately, neither story is terribly compelling, alone or in concert with its twin, despite the larger-than-life presence of Doyle. The more modern tale, involving a romantic triangle between the elder Oxford anthropologist charged with ascertaining the fossil’s true age, a female Lithuanian former student half his age who’s also his fiancé, and a young, go-getter specialist from UCLA, is certainly the weaker of the two – as certain as we are of the outcome of their testing of the Piltdown skull, there’s even less mystery how this ill-fated love story will play out.

Some of the Steppenwolf ensemble’s better acting talent is at work here, including Francis Guinan as Doyle and the jilted Oxford don, and Kate Arrington, as a Nellie Bly-type "lady reporter" who uncovers Piltdown Man’s creator and the young Lithuanian. The production’s design, by Todd Rosenthal (scenery), Karin Kopischke (costumes) and Joe Appelt (lighting) is both evocative and pointed.

But in the end, it’s the play itself that disappoints. Simonson’s theme of how and why we come to know what we call "the truth," and what role faith plays in arriving at it, is not uninteresting. But the uneven tone and murky philosophizing of Fake render an interesting idea into a somewhat less than satisfying evening in the theater.

Rating: ««½

Photographer: Mark Campbell Photographer: Mark Campbell 

Photographer: Mark Campbell

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Review – “Carter’s Way” at Steppenwolf

Carter’s Way 1Carter’s Way

Producers: Steppenwolf Theatre  

Set-up: It’s 1935.  In America, it’s the middle of the Great Depression.  In Kansas City, it’s the peak of the city’s legendary jazz era.  The Kansas City jazz scene is hopping with recording deals and jam-packed clubs like Planet Mars, owned by Peewee Abernathy (ensemble member K. Todd Freeman).  Here at the Planet Mars, life revolves around Oriole Carter (James Vincent Meredith), a brilliant black saxophonist, who leads the house band.  Carter is falling head over heels for the white girlfriend Eunice (Anne Adams) of a local mobster, just as a brand new invention called the radio can possibly make Carter a nationally-recognized star.  Will this taboo relationship ruin Carter’s expectant success?

plus Great performances: Meredith’s Carter is dead-on as the talented, agonized saxophonist (and he plays the saxophone riffs himself); ensemble member Ora Jones’ portrayal of piano-playing caretaker Marilyn Stokes offers up nuanced surprises throughout; Freeman’s impersonation of Peewee adroitly displays the character’s struggles between running his nightclub at a profit all the while appreciating the talents of the club’s band.  Neil Patel’s set works wonderfully, most of the action taking place on the first floor of Planet Mars, with extra scenes using a room built directly above the club.  Darrell Leonard’s original music is remarkable in that one senses that the tunes must have been originally written during the 1920’s era.  Barry Funderburg’s sound design is exemplary and flawless.  Finally, this rave review would not be complete without mentioning the multi-talented ensemble-memberEric Simonson, the playwright and director of Carter’s Way – kudos in every definition of the word.

minus From my inspection, there are/were two weaknesses inherent in the production, although all of them can be remedied (though not during Steppenwolf’s run).  The first, less formidable weakness falls on the performance from Anne Adams, playing love-interest Eunice – she comes across second-rate when lined up with the rest of the ensemble powerhouse; unconvincing in presenting a case for her reckless and selfish behavior and choices.  Secondly, the role of the up-and-coming mobster Johnny Russo (Keith Kupferer) really demands a deeper exploration – the character, exhibiting an imaginative entrepreneurism that goes against the grain of the mobster culture, proves intriguing. 

Summary:  In the end, Carter’s Way is a well-crafted, moving play – one that effectively played games on my emotions, as I nervously told myself “Don’t do it.  Don’t screw this up”. The production looks and sounds great, and the overall talented, adept performances propel this drama tragically forward, much like a snowball rumbling down a hill.  Without hesitation, I proclaim Carter’s Way as highly recommended.

Rating: «««½

Related Links: Chicago Tribune review, Sun-Times review

UpdateIt appears that I made a mistake in my review regarding my misgivings with Peewee’s final dialogue.  I have thus made an adjustment. Carter’s Way at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre

Personnel and Show Times

Playwright: Eric Simonson
Director: Eric Simonson
Sets: Neil Patel
Lights: Keith Parham
Costumes: Karin Kopischke
Sound Design: Barry Funderburg
Dramaturg: Edward Sobel
Stage Manage: Malcolm Ewen
   
Featuring: K. Todd Freeman (Peewee Abernathy)
James Vincent Meredith (Oriole Carter)
Ora Jones (Marily Stokes)
Keith Kupferer (Johnny Russo)
Anne Adams (Eunice Fey)
Robert Breuler (Boss Jack Thorpe)
  Scott Cummins (Corky, Henry, Billings, Andy)
Calvin Dutton, Curtis M. Jackson, Michael Pogue (ensemble)
   
Dates: Through April 17, 2008
Show Times: Tuesday through Sunday, 7:30pmSaturday and Sunday matinees at 3pmAdditional matinees on April 9, 16 and 23 at 2:00pm (Wednesdays)
Tickets: $20 – $45
Producers: Steppenwolf Theatre