Haymarket is a workmanlike ode to the working man | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Haymarket is a workmanlike ode to the working man 

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and two hours of inertness onstage.

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Michael Brosilow

Yes, Underscore Theatre's reworked 2016 "new folk musical" about the titular violent 1886 Chicago labor protest and its hopelessly corrupt aftermath features singing and dancing anarchists (who play musical instruments to boot). But both Nick Thornton's no-frills choreography and Robert Ollis's straight-ahead musical direction are fittingly—if unengagingly—workmanlike. The production's general lack of razzle-dazzle may suit the subject matter, but it makes for a rather featureless two-plus hours.

Part of the problem stems from the insular material. David Kornfeld's folk-Americana score, while at times haunting, suffers from a narrow repetitiveness (it seems every other number is The Big Anthem). More important, Alex Higgin-Houser's book and lyrics reduce the horrendous working conditions of the day to punchy vocal refrains ("Eight hours for work! Eight hours for rest!") rather than lived realities. And the main characters remain underdeveloped, pronouncing their convictions in song without revealing much about themselves. About all we know of lead organizer Albert Parsons, for instance, is that he was inspired by the Paris Commune and doesn't advocate violence.

The creators have made one great improvement on their original version, fashioning a satisfying dramatic arc for protagonist Lucy Parsons, whose struggle to find her voice as a union leader nicely intertwines the personal and the political. Still, she's more emblem than person. Thornton, who also directs, too often leaves her (and the rest of his cast) to raise a fist and stare defiantly into the middle distance rather than interact in compellingly human ways.   v

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