Chameleon Street | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Chameleon Street 

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It took two years for this provocative independent feature to reach Chicago, yet it's as intellectually ambitious as any new American picture I've seen this year. This highly original existential dark comedy, which won first prize at the 1990 Sundance film festival, charts the real-life exploits of William Douglas Street (played with a great deal of charisma and wit by writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr.), a con man from Detroit who specialized in impersonations during the period covered in the film (1978-1985). Street impersonated a Time reporter, a surgery intern who performed 23 successful operations, an exchange student from Martinique at Yale, and a volunteer civil rights lawyer; he was also responsible for various other scams along the way (e.g., a failed blackmail attempt) and did a few stints in prison. Not wasting any time with facile psychologizing, Harris explores his subject in a number of ways: as an essay of sorts on the mysteries and paradoxes of acting (compounded by the fact that some of Harris's real-life victims play themselves, including basketball star Paula McGee and Detroit mayor Coleman Young); as the source of some very funny comedy; as an exploration of the invisibility of blacks in America that often suggests Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; and as a disturbing yet compelling rogue's progress that often calls to mind an 18th-century picaresque novel. Part of what keeps it so interesting is the detached, dandylike air Harris gives Street, who's clearly portrayed as neither pure hero nor pure villain; but there's also a lot to be said for Harris's eclectic directorial style, which doesn't always sustain itself but is brimming with inventive ideas (1989). (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 16 through 22)

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