All Quiet on the Western Front brings diversity and relevance in Red Tape's production | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

All Quiet on the Western Front brings diversity and relevance in Red Tape's production 

Matt Foss's adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's World War I classic is both powerful and frustrating.

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click to enlarge All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front

Austin D. Oie

Red Tape Theatre's take on Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 classic is as powerful as it is frustrating. When it hits, it hits hard. When it misses, it misses just as hard and is all the more heartbreaking for it.

Set on and around the Western Front during World War I, Remarque's story follows the fate of a crew of German boys barely out of high school. They embody the generation sold on and as "Iron Youth" before being sent off as cannon fodder for the fatherland. Failure to report for duty meant public shaming at best.

Given the history, many theaters would have gone traditionally Teutonic and cis-male with their casting. But with adapter-director Matt Foss's 12-person ensemble, casting director Catherine Miller and Red Tape don't let history dictate who gets to play what role. Of all the casts onstage this summer in all Chicago, I'd lay odds that Red Tape's looks the most like the city it serves. The play is the better for it: Remarque's brutal story wasn't just for Germans. He was talking to the world about a problem that impacts every human in it. In this cast, the concept of Everyperson is truly personal; no matter who you are, you'll probably see someone who looks like you. What Paul (Elena Victoria Feliz) and his company endure, so do we. That's power and drama—the fundamental essence of good theater.

Despite that, there were major misfires opening night, some that are hopefully onetime tics, others that are structural. The production's biggest problem is its repetitiveness and (related) the often laborious transitions between scenes. All Quiet needs an editor. It's a predictable problem that often afflicts shows penned and directed by the same person.

The first time All Quiet thrusts the audience into the explosive light, dust, and ear-ringing annihilation of mortar fire, you can practically feel the impact of the bombs. Leah Urzendowski's choreography and movement direction have a gorgeous, balletic feel that somehow highlights the terrible, random cruelty of mass carnage. But by the fourth time the colored smoke engulfs the stage, it just seems like overkill. That might have been the intent—to show how easily we can normalize the atrocity of violence and horror. If so, the point is taken, but its execution is still lacking.

There are flashes of ingenuity throughout: Dustings of snow isolate the dead or dying. Fingernails brushed over piano wires create the humming dissonance of a place where the very air crackles and pops with tension. A pair of battered boots become the symbol of both survival and despair. Speaking of which: Rachel Sypniewski's early 19th-century German military wear is impressively detailed, down to the leather pouches and olive-drab trousers.

Remarque's book makes readers feel the scythe slicing the air with his brutal descriptions of pointless death. You read it, and you understand why it was banned under the Third Reich. Red Tape doesn't always capture the urgent intensity of Remarque's writing, particularly the way Remarque underscored the brutality of the mundane. As the soldier at the center, Feliz seemed tentative and uncertain opening night. It's an extremely strenuous role, both emotionally and physically, and it seemed to daunt the actor at its center. Hopefully that will subside as the run continues. Feliz's Paul seemed to grow increasingly haunted as the intermission-free production continued; by the end, you believed every bit of his despair.

All Quiet is at its best when the dialogue cuts out and Dan Poppen's sound and Stephen Sakowski's lighting merge with Urzendowski's movement to create indelibly vivid images. Nicholas James Schwartz's set is a thing of terrible beauty: before a backdrop of shadowy barbed wire, ruined pianos serve as trenches, glowing from the inside in a tangle of guts made of gleaming strings.

More than anything, this is an ensemble show, and this ensemble makes the comradery onstage feel stone true. You can almost see the bonds that form among the soldiers as they move from one hellscape to the next.

As always at Red Tape, tickets are free. All Quiet isn't perfect, but it's worth your time.  v

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