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: The Pigeons (Walkabout Theatre)

Buying In and Selling Out—All Over a Cup of Coffee

Pigeons horiz 2

 
Walkabout Theatre presents
 
The Pigeons
 
by Joe Zarrow
directed by Cassy Sanders
at
Swim Café, 1357 W. Chicago (map)
thru June 7th  |  suggested donation: $10-$15  |  more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Without a doubt, one can arrive unprepared for Joe Zarrow’s new play, The Pigeons, produced by Walkabout Theatre, at Swim Café’s space. It’s easily the cleverest, foxiest and physically wildest farces I’ve seen since, well, forever. The production’s biggest drawback may be the space itself. As a lucky critic on opening night, I got central place out of the severely limited seating—other audience members had to Pigeons vert settle for seats way off to the side of the dramatic action because of the café’s bowling-alley structure.

Walkabout chose Swim Cafe to ultra-locate Zarrow’s play in West Town, grounding its gentrification issues directly for that neighborhood. The Pigeons is about West Town’s café society confronting the dilemmas of buying in and selling out. But, honestly, this play could be revised to fit any up-and-coming neighborhood with its hypocritical, image-obsessed, anti-gentrification hipsters. They are a countercultural generation beset by worthy opponents for the same living spaces: the materialistic, self-absorbed yuppies for whom money equals sex and commitment, and the cunning, ethnic enthusiasts for the American Dream, manipulating their way to it by any—and every–means necessary.

Take Martin (Kevin Crisper) for example. He’s a community-conscious eco-hipster needing a place to stay in his gentrifying hood, so that he can keep his job and fulfill its mission to green the area. But he’s also something of a man-whore, whose dalliances with the ladies may be as much about attaining said living space as actual attraction to the ladies in question. Then there’s Martin’s buddy, Lloyd (Keith Neagle), a graphic artist and budding textile artist (okay, he likes crafts) who is totally in love with his slacker lifestyle. Lloyd’s been couch surfing in Martin’s various apartments since, well, college. Any café serves as his office and living room since he can reliably sit in one, with his books and notebooks, over one cup of coffee for up to six hours at a stretch. Lloyd maintains the purity of his ideals, in contrast to Martin, but that may be as much about the fact that he can retreat to his Dad’s home in Wilmette as any true courage of conviction.

Zarrow’s crafty, shrewd and artful dialogue knows whereof it speaks. Even Veronica (Emma Stanton), proprietor of the independent alternative café, in which Martin and Lloyd execute their warring discourses, is more obsessed with image, both the café’s and her own personal image (they are one!), than with selling coffee and paninis. Even slacker Lloyd gets roped into serving the customers while Veronica exits for image consultations with her advisor, Jorge. He discovers too late his gross error in serving Bex (Mary Hollis Inboden), a shapely, success-at-all costs real estate agent who places her complex latte order with him while awaiting a client. “I’m sorry,” says Lloyd, once corrected by Veronica, “I wasn’t aware of your socio-economic profiling policy.”

Bex and her shallow, materialistic, and seductive go-getter agenda may be everything Martin, Lloyd, and Veronica hate, but she’s nothing compared to Chad (Travis Williams), her yuppie frat-boy client. Who knows what subconscious manias really drive Chad, but any interaction with caffeinated beverages leads to behavior that requires a restraining order. The café’s perennial visitor, The Pierogi Lady (Mary Mikva), needs no stimulant other than her aspirations for a piece of the American pie.

 

Pigeons horiz 1 Pigeons horiz 3 

All together, Zarrow has created characters one finds in the farcical action movies of “Rat Race” or “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, only he shows greater sophistication in his handling of themes. All the play needs now are some minor editing adjustments—Lloyd’s death scene goes a little too long, as do Veronica’s plans for homelessness at the end.

Director Cassy Sanders demonstrates she has the wherewithal to wind up her sterling, energetic, and savvy cast and let them fly. As Bex, Inboden had me with real estate speak like “Slippy-Whipper” and “I am a real estate agent—I have an instinctual connection to the land.” As Chad, Williams bowled me over with, “Bros before condos” and his own self-congratulatory plans to help out the “poor Spic kids” in the neighborhood. Crispin’s Martin is as self-compromising a philosopher as any, especially when it comes to getting what he desperately wants. “Our dreams are better than his dreams,” he says of Chad; once he confiscates Chad’s money, “What we have here is some real Robin Hood re-distribution shit!” For his part, Neagle makes me wonder just what Lloyd’s “macchiato incident” at Starbucks was really all about. Only the roles of Veronica and The Pierogi Lady seem a little on the thin side, which may have little or nothing to do with Stanton and Mikva’s interpretations of them.

Overall, audiences would do very well to squeeze their way into Swim Café’s space and enjoy the riveting, intelligent, and manic farce that Walkabout and The Pigeons provides for their neighborhood. And I think you can also get some coffee and a pastry before the show.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 
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