Theater of the Ears | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Theater of the Ears 

A play about college sports recruiting comes alive for radio.

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November's closing in on Thanksgiving, and a happy chunk of Chicago's theater community is gathered round a big table at the Guest Quarters Suite Hotel on Delaware Place east of Michigan Avenue. Here are Eric Simonson from Steppenwolf Theatre, Russell Vandenbroucke from Northlight, Larry Sloan from Remains, and Steve Scott from the Goodman. The Next Theatre's Harriet Spizziri is present; so are Richard Fire from the Organic, Mark Richard and Kelly Nespor from City Lit, and Christine Dunford--a real trouper, hobbling in on crutches--from Lookingglass. Steppenwolf movie star John Mahoney is sitting beside one of two visiting directors from the BBC, assuming the role of host by virtue of his preternatural jolliness.

No Thanksgiving dinner will be served at the big table today, but the local guests have reason to be thankful all the same. Their theaters are among the 14 participating in Chicago Theatres on the Air--a radio series consisting of play adaptations, to be recorded before live audiences at Guest Quarters and broadcast later over WFMT. Underwritten by Guest Quarters, American Airlines, and WFMT, Chicago Theatres on the Air has provided the people at the table with an opportunity to bring their shows to more than two million households--a figure somewhat larger than what they might expect to attract to their home stages. Combined.

The idea is to present adaptations of works written for the theater rather than radio scripts per se. That's how they did it in Santa Monica, where Susan Albert Loewenberg of the L.A. Theatre Works organized the prototype event in 1990--and with Loewenberg as executive producer of the Chicago version, that's how they're doing it here. The Goodman went first on February 6, with John Logan's courtroom drama Never the Sinner; later Lookingglass will reprise their recent staging of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Steppenwolf will revive Anne Tyler's Earthly Possessions, Victory Gardens will remount Claudia Allen's The Long Awaited, and so on through July.

Naturally, the process of transferring a play from mostly eye to pure ear is complicated--especially for theater artists with no particular grounding in the technical aspects of radio, like the ones in this room. Hence Martin Jenkins and John Theocharis, the two directors from the BBC: distinguished gentlemen with careful grooming and a tendency to speak in axioms.

Jenkins and Theocharis have been brought in to lead the Chicagoans through two days of workshops designed to help them realize their scripts on the radio. There's a studio session promised for later in the day. But right now the directors--who claim to have overseen 1,000 BBC productions apiece--appear to be interested mainly in making the whole business seem a little more friendly. Well, one of them does, anyway: while Jenkins is evidently comfortable with Loewenberg's concept, Theocharis rebels every so often, announcing his distrust of a successful marriage between theater and radio, worrying that theater conventions will sully radio's formal purity, actually cheering ("Hear, hear") when Larry Sloan talks about using Marconi's medium to achieve effects unachievable onstage.

Still, both men are willing to offer information, tips, lore, reassurance, and of course, axioms. It's hard to create the illusion of height on radio, they say, but easy to give an impression of perspective; there's an art to handling the pages of a script so that they don't rattle; a smile "can be made vocally"; and yelling into a microphone won't get you anywhere: "You've got to seduce it and woo it and conquer it," Jenkins explains. As for the possibilities, well, Theocharis recalls how Joe Egg author Peter Nichols was commissioned to write something for the BBC and then dropped from sight for a couple of years; when they called to find out what had become of him, he said he was finding it extremely difficult to write for the radio "because there are no limits."

Jim Kozicki had been sitting at the big table with Jenkins, Theocharis, and the others. A Daley College English professor who looks like a younger and infinitely nicer Jesse Helms, Kozicki wrote a play called Black Beauty three years ago, about the predatory world of big-time collegiate basketball recruiters. The Organic Theater took an interest in it, guided it through three staged readings, and picked it to be their contribution to the Chicago Theatres on the Air series.

Centered on a rogue recruiter--a sort of NCAA Ahab from a high-powered state university who roams the back roads searching for his Great Black Whale, his Michael-Jordan-in-the-Rough--Black Beauty had already endured some heavy editing before anybody thought of putting it on the radio. Over time Kozicki had dropped a hefty piece of the script's original 204-page length as well as some of its more extravagant touches, including the part where the recruiter's prime prospect gets beaten, drugged, and kidnapped. The prospect, an illiterate cement-court genius named Albert K. Memorial, is now captured by more subtle if only slightly less ruthless means.

But radio created a whole new set of complications--not the least of which involved the fact that Kozicki had imagined Albert as a silent character. Your basic mute victim. People at the big table spoke with a kind of jokey desperation about signaling Albert's presence by bouncing a basketball near the microphones. The manner of the bouncing, somebody suggested, could telegraph his internal state.

Happily, Kozicki and his director, Michael E. Myers, decided against that idea. They chose to give Albert the humanizing gift of language instead. A taste of it anyway. Albert's still no Hamlet; he's mostly on a par with Lenny from Of Mice and Men or the glass-jawed Argentinean boxer in The Harder They Fall. But at least he no longer has to dribble to express himself.

The whole evolution of Black Beauty seems to have been a process of humanizing things. Believe it or not, Kozicki's inspiration for the play wasn't Moby Dick but King Kong and its image of a canny professional hunter going into the bush to trap, transport, tame, and ultimately exploit his wild and prodigious prize. The violence of Kozicki's original version was derived from that image.

Kozicki credits actor Terry Cullers with introducing elements of humor into his dark vision. An early collaborator, Cullers showed Kozicki the comic potential in subsidiary characters like a genially corrupt sheriff named Stubby.

Still, Albert--and to some extent, it seems, the recruiter--didn't start softening into people until preparations for the radio production began under Myers. An African American whose sharp understanding of black-white role-playing is hilariously evident in his recent play If Looks Could Kill, Myers was concerned about how the show would come across in terms of racial politics.

King Kong, of course, is a festival of Caucasoid fever dreams: The white hunter/colonialist/master battling the huge black beast/subject/slave who grabs his woman--even threatens his airplanes and skyscrapers--before being subdued. Admittedly "protective" of the symbols surrounding black people, Myers wanted to neutralize or redefine the remnants of King Kong in Black Beauty. The trick was to do it without taking the edge off Kozicki's indictment of amateur sports.

The solution was to let the beast speak.

On February 20 Black Beauty was performed before a sellout crowd in the Lakeshore Ballroom at Guest Quarters. Joe Spano, best known as Lieutenant Goldblum on Hill Street Blues, played the recruiter who calls himself Mr. G; a soft-spoken young actor named Eric Flynn Ruff played Albert. The show had its fascinations--particularly with regard to Spano and William King, who played a disenchanted assistant to Mr. G, a sort of native carrier with a sense of irony. Peter Rybolt performed onstage sound effects with a deadpan efficiency that pretty near stole the show now and then.

Overall, however, it didn't really work. Too much of Kozicki's homespun language crossed over into hoke, too many of his poetic gestures came off as contrivances. What with their down-home diction, their lazy talk, and the fact that they were being performed for the radio, the comic bits between deputy sheriff Stubby and his pal Toole came uncomfortably close to echoing Amos 'n' Andy.

And yet Myers, Kozicki, and the rest had managed one crucial victory: they'd used the radio to transcend the issue of race and cut straight to the human drama of Mr. G and Albert. When I closed my eyes I didn't see white hunters and black beasts; I saw a deeply ambiguous negotiation between two people, a man and an overgrown kid, each of whom had important things to gain and lose. Certainly that's got something to do with what Peter Nichols meant when he complained so enthusiastically about the medium's lack of limits.

Black Beauty will be broadcast over WFMT FM on Sunday, March 15, at 4 PM.

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