Theatre in Review

Tuesday, 16 January 2018 11:02

Traitor Mixes Hilarious Send-up With Biting Commentary on Our Times Featured

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Traitor Mixes Hilarious Send-up With Biting Commentary on Our Times Photo by Michael Brosilow

The mayor of small-town East Lake, Illinois is facing a crisis: lead contamination was just discovered under a thriving magnet school, one that has become a sparkplug over the past few years for a dramatic influx of new residents, real estate development and a thriving local economy.

Complicating matters for Mayor Patty Stock (played with gusto by Kirsten Fitzgerald): the bad news was delivered by her brother Dr. Tom Stock (Guy Van Swearingen in a knockout performance), the revered science professor who returned to his home town just to teach at this school.

A Red Orchid Theatre's new show, Traitor, taps Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 comedy-drama, An Enemy of the People, and like the original is packed with characters (the mayor’s sister-in-law, her niece and nephew, the publisher and a reporter for the local town paper, Dr. Stock’s father-in-law and three town council members). It is a high energy production that at first plays largely like a screwball comedy. Five people at one point are talking at once over each other’s lines.

As the action unfolds in mythical East Lake, around Dr. Stock’s kitchen table, the mayor calls for gin and her brother Dr. Stock invites everyone to “self-medicate” on medical marijuana. Dr. Stock’s long - suffering wife, Karla Kihl-Stock (Dado) is beset by interruptions as she tries to get some freelance book editing done as the kitchen turns into a Grand Central Station with arrivals and departures.

The drama turns on whether to publish the lead contamination findings in the Non Pareil newspaper, since that will likely kill the magnet school’s success. Dr. Stock, more of a firebrand, and advocates publishing right away. We learn from his wife he is a serial whistle blower, having done something similar (and killing his employment prospects) in several towns before. Mildly amusing and seeming to rely on histrionics, Traitor bumbles along, and we are not quite sure where it's headed or why we should care. 

Then the play takes a turn to awesomeness, with an ingenious shift of venue: as the drama crescendo’s the lights come up and the audience is ushered from its seats to an adjacent storefront, where the East Lake City Council is convening an emergency public meeting to deal with this crisis. The audience automatically take on the roles of townsfolk, and Chair Woman Mary Jo Bolduc (Fran Wysocki), and board members Jacob Alexander (Eric Ryhde) and Natalie West (Jenn Sheffer) conduct a truly hilarious meeting, punctuated by Alexander’s gratuitously mumbling “Second” and Wysocki’s efforts to maintain order. Chaos descends and a melee ensues. 

West, who we have met earlier as the perpetually self-promoting owner of Needle Knit Shop, is even more daffy in this town hall segment. And Mayor Stock recuses herself, then proceeds to disregard her recusal. Those words will be familiar to anyone tracking the investigative committees in Washington! 

This village meeting would be at home on the stages across the street at Zanie's and Second City. The first part of the play is really a set-up for the town council meeting, which gives the whole enterprise a bigger meaning. Wysocki in particular glad hands the audience like any pol, and I was as excited to meet her as if she had been the real thing. That's acting! 

In adapting Ibsen’s 1882 original, playwright Brett Neveu updated the plot and injected contemporary details, sometimes more or less deftly. Social media augments the newspaper channel, for example - that makes sense. But a "Taco Tuesday" device that presumably explains why everyone comes and goes from the Stock household seems kind of strange.

Like Arthur Miller who first adapted it for Broadway in 1950, Neveu has excised Dr. Stock’s rants on eugenics. But he has left in Stock's cry of desperation over the “tyranny of unenlightened masses” that can diminish the social fabric. Dr. Stock’s call will certainly resonate in an age of the Kardashian’s and a famous TV personality now in the White House. That the issues facing our body politic are showing up on our stages - Tracy Lett's recent Minutes at Steppenwolf covers similar territory - reminds us of the useful role theater plays for our community. 

When the audience returns to the theater, the plot takes a more serious turn, and we learn students are lethargic, and the lead poisoning is a real threat. The Stock's own son Randal (15-year-old Nation Stock) shows signs of the poisoning - and delivers a stirring preroration on the tendency adults have to focus on self aggrandizement and power plays than to address the real problems at their root. 

A Red Orchid Theatre received a Macarthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2016, and Traitor is evidence why. A few rough edges notwithstanding, but this is a strong effort. You will not want to miss it during its run, through February 25 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N Wells in Chicago. 

Last modified on Thursday, 18 January 2018 23:35
Bill Esler

A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College. 



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