Degenerate Art | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Degenerate Art 

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"I want to paint you," says Emil Nolde to his wife Ada early in Degenerate Art, Tom Jacobson's historical drama about life and art in Hitler's Germany. "I'm not ugly enough," Ada ironically responds. Much of the art created by Nolde and his fellow expressionists, who were living and working in a Germany left desperate and humiliated by World War I, was indeed ugly--which made it truthful despite its fantastical quality, and which is why it was banned by a Nazi government seeking to glorify the Aryan nation. In the play's midwest premiere by Cloud 42, Patrick Trettenero's expressionistic staging emphasizes the play's strange, nightmarish aspects; with its unheroic characters, antierotic nudity, and offbeat look, this show is (by Nazi standards) "degenerate art" that depicts degenerating reality. In R.J. Karlstrom's (literally) illuminating visual design, some 300 projected images by Nolde, Kathe Kollwitz, Max Ernst, and others not only show what the Nazis found subversive but evoke the sickly anxiety of a society susceptible to Hitler's paranoiac propaganda. The mysterious cityscape created by Brian Traynor's moody, angular set design and Todd Hensley's shadowy lighting is a perfect three-dimensional canvas, where allegorical grotesques from Nolde's work interact with more mundane monsters--people such as Nolde himself. Nolde insisted that art was apolitical even as he sneered at the liberals, Jews, and homosexuals whose influence in the art world prompted him to join the political party that eventually turned on him. Don Renaud makes an appropriately prickly, self-pitying Nolde; the excellent Gretchen Sonstroem, who has taken over the role of Ada since the play's run was extended this month, captures her character's self-aware intelligence as well as her self-defeating passivity. At the Theatre Building, through September 7 (1225 W. Belmont, 327-5252). Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 PM; Sundays, 3 and 7:30 PM. $15.

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