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Speed Kills 

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FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, A SAVAGE JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

New Crime Productions

at the Gallery

DIRT

ETA Creative Arts Foundation

You'd think that of all the theater companies in Chicago, New Crime Productions would be best suited--artistically, temperamentally, financially--to tackle a stage adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's taboo-flouting, genre-defying satirical nonfiction novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

After all, this is the company that has managed the ballsy Thompson-esque trick of creating for themselves the personas of outlaws while remaining solidly in the game. The company with guts and clout and money enough to call themselves "new criminals" without being either ridiculed or ignored by the press--in fact, feature after feature has outlined their latest criminal activity. The company that managed to establish a reputation in Chicago's crowded non-Equity scene as a theater to be reckoned with, though they produce only a fraction of what other smaller, poorer, and less publicized companies do.

To their credit, this is also the company that has spent the last three years developing a loud, outrageous, in-your-face performing style, which they never tire of telling us is "a variation of the classic Italian Commedia Dell'Arte," as the program says. This performing style would seem a natural asset for anyone trying to bring to the stage the craziness of Thompson's writings, not to mention Ralph Steadman's rage-filled, ink-splattered illustrations for the book.

Aspects of New Crime's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream do work. Certain scenes, characterizations, and several flamboyant set pieces--including not one but two huge gas guzzlers, the "red shark" and the "whale"--are absolutely on the mark. You couldn't find a better Dr. Gonzo than Jeremy Piven, who spends much of the show bellowing madly at the top of his lungs--volume is everything in New Crime's take on commedia dell'arte--and still manages to make Dr. Gonzo not only believable but sympathetic.

Overall, however, New Crime's production is an artless mess. Nearly three hours long including one intermission, the show is as exhausting to watch as it must be to perform. (The actors looked completely spent by the end of the evening.) The production lacks any sort of focus or artistic discrimination. The first act valiantly attempts to crowd in every word, comma, and ellipsis from the first half of Thompson's book, with the result that the audience suffers both sensory overload and narrative deprivation.

To make matters worse, New Crime's commedia style rolls over the subtleties in Thompson's exquisitely crafted prose. Much of the book's wry comedy is lost in this production--even the brilliant first paragraph loses its wicked edge--and so are most of Thompson's more serious ruminations about America. In fact, except for a wonderfully surreal second-act scene in which Thompson and Gonzo quiz a girl at a taco stand about where they can find the American dream, directors John Cusack and Steve Pink seem to have missed the fact that Thompson's book is about much more than the ingestion of massive quantities of drugs and alcohol.

Nor does it help that Thompson's story has been divided among three characters--Dr. Gonzo, Duke, and a narrator--who deliver the material in such very different styles that Thompson's distinctive narrative voice is split into three voices, none capable of conveying his distinctive comedy. Piven as the idlike Dr. Gonzo screams most of his lines. Bill Cusack as the show's ego, Duke, delivers his in a charming, offhand manner, at once reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thurston Howell III; this might have been more winning if he had been more audible. Paul Quinn as the removed, ineffectual superego, Thompson in his study, falls somewhere between the two, lacking either Cusack's charm or Piven's power.

Sadly, much of what's wrong could have been cured with a few more weeks of rehearsal, better direction, and a little cutting. All right, a lot of cutting. Watching the show progress page by page through Thompson's book, I kept thinking of the old Woody Allen joke about speed reading: "I read War and Peace in an hour. It's about Russia." To myself I said "I saw Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas performed in two and three-quarter hours. It's about drugs."

Length is not a problem with David L. Crowder's Dirt, currently playing at ETA Creative Arts Foundation; it runs a little less than two hours, counting intermission. But unfortunately Crowder couldn't seem to decide whether he was writing "Council Wars" or Father Knows Best, and so created a work in two opposing styles--one bitter and satiric, the other sweet and sincere. The two styles cancel each other out, and the production never realizes its full dramatic potential.

The satiric side of the play concerns a bitterly contested election for mayor of Chicago that pits a benevolent, reform-minded acting mayor, Reverend George Anderson, against a party hack who's being manipulated by none other than Reverend Anderson's party-boss brother, Big Al. The more sincere side concerns George's perfect, loving, God-fearing, decidedly upwardly mobile African American family.

The satiric side is far more interesting, thanks in part to Crowder's gift for comic dialogue and in part to Wayne Brown's marvelously funny portrayal of Big Al. Though Crowder's satire is never particularly sharp, the topic is rich enough that the material can't help but be fresh and lively.

Unfortunately, Crowder spends much more stage time showing us what an ideal family George Anderson presides over. His wife loves him without reservation, as do his three children, two of them well-paid, high-powered lawyers and the third a brilliant high school student well on his way to becoming the Einstein of his generation. What slouches the Huxtables seem next to the Andersons!

Such archperfection quickly becomes tiresome. The family is clearly intended as a role model in a world where "the condition of our families is not very healthy," as director Kemati J. Porter says in a program note. But it doesn't work. When the time came for final bows, Wayne Brown received the loudest and longest applause.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Laura S. Foreman.

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