Highly Recommended ****In order of publication, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the first candidate for “The Great American Novel,” and as Mark Twain once said of classics “It is a book that everybody talks about, but nobody has read” Thus, taking the novel as a framework for a meta-theatrical play, and turning Melville’s narrative into a story about a theatre company with its very own Ismael and Captain Ahab was a pretty gutsy move, but Chopin Theatre’s production of “Season On The Line” is, for the most part, extremely successful. I have to admit I wasn’t real thrilled when they ripped a page out of a hardback copy of Moby Dick and gave it to me as a ticket. Have print books really become that extraneous? Nor is 7:30 an ideal curtain time for a play that runs three hours, but there were two intermissions, and every scenes was necessary if not (and many of them were) thrilling.
The play has a young narrator (Ty Olwin) who clearly represents Melville’s Ismael. He has just joined the theatre company as an assistant stage manager, begins a sort of apprenticeship under Day Starr (Maggie Kettering), and tries rather unsuccessfully to befriend the theatre ensemble by whom he is baffled. He hears stories of artistic director, Ben Adonna (Thomas J. Cox), a grazed genius and the Captain Ahab of this story before Adonna ever appears onstage. In this “adaptation,” Moby Dick, the titular character of Melville’s novel, is an important theatre critic called Arthur Williamson (Sean Sinitski) and Ben Adorno will drive the theatre company to the brink of destruction in pursuit of a four-star notice from Williamson What emerges is a fascinating look at theatre companies, their relationship to major critics, and how plays are produced, particularly what the work is like for stage managers and techs, and why fight scenes require so much special blocking.
The shows conceit that they are working on an adaptation of Moby Dick, which is in some sense what we are watching, proves interesting rather than heavy-handed or annoying. I also salute ensemble member and script-writer Shawn Pfautsch’s ability to make merciless but affectionate fun of theatre types with the invaluable help of Marika Mashburn who gives outstanding supporting, comic performance as “Elizabeth Frickle.” Ty Olwin is a great actor, and he needs no advice from me on either performance or success. He captures naïveté, overwhelmed bafflement, and an unassuming innocence with superlative skill, but surely he is aware that this is his second appearance as the narrator of a “memory play” this year.I hope he will not let theatre companies squander his considerable talent by typecasting him. The high-point of the play comes at the end in a scene between Olwin and Sean Sinitski, whose portrayal of critic Arthur Williamson: a paradoxical mix of hyper-intelligence, self-importance, pretension, sensitivity, and humility, is a perfect contrast to Olwin’s narrator. Ultimately, Sinitski gives an extremely credible performance of a highly successful man despite being given very little actual time onstage, and the chemistry between him and Olwin in the final scene is a full-return on the audience’s 3-hour investment. Two supporting roles were somewhat weak: Thomas J. Cox is far too manic as artistic director Ben Adonna. We never got a sense of genius or dedication, just pathology. Maggie Kettering portrays Day’s Starr’s competence, confidence, and frustration extremely well, but the character is central enough to the story that she needs to convey more complicated emotions to make her character believable and the story tragic.
Intimacy is a greatly debased term in Chicago Theatre, but I think the blocking of this play by director Jess McCleod, in which the actors sometimes sit in the audience, truly accomplishes it in spite of the fact that the house is moderately large and spacious. There isn’t a lot of technical work here, but there doesn’t really need to be. Most of the story takes play in a theatre. Over all, “Season on the Line” is a great night out if an exceptionally long one. “Season on the Line” runs at The Chopin Theatre Upstairs Theatre located at 1543 W. Division Street through Sunday, October 24. Regular Performances are Thursday’s through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday-Monday at 7 p.m. The play runs for three hours with two intermissions. Tickets range between 25 and 35 dollars. 10 Dollars for student and same day discounted industry tickets are available for all dates, seats permitting. To order tickets call 773-769-7832 or visit www.thehousetheatre.com
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Season on The Line”