Playwright: Calamity West
At: Sideshow Theatre Company
at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Runs through: Dec. 18
The play opens backstage, where an unnamed solo musician resemblingbut never identified asBob Dylan is preparing for a concert.
Later, we will meet his traveling companion on this tour, a bearded beat bard eerily reminiscent of the late Allen Ginsberg. Other visitors include his generic recording agent, an African-American singer-songwriter whose memories of their early days together in the protest movement recall those of Joan Baez, and his current consort, whose physical appearance is only a hair color away from fashionista Sara Lownds, the future Mrs. Dylan.
The locale soon shifts to a Paris hotel room where the anonymous folk-rock star has retreated following a radical change in his aesthetic, departing from acoustical ballads to employ electric instruments and amplification. His venture has drawn criticism from his former supporters, who accuse him of selling out to commercial interests. These contextual signposts echo those surrounding the real-life Bob Dylanwho is NOT the hero in this play, remembercirca 1966.
Calamity West is not a playwright inclined to teasing her audiences, nor is her deliberate refusal to name names merely a safeguard against legal action arising from speculations on the psychology of notoriously private celebrities. The struggle she scrutinizes in 16 scenes spanning two hours is that of the artistany artistdemanding the freedom to pursue new ideas, and in doing so, resisting the pressure of friends, lovers, colleagues, managers and fans whose own fortunes rely on their breadwinner shunning unexplored frontiers and the risks associated therewith.
This is a crisis faced by many popular entertainers, although Dylan's prodigious skill at artistic reinvention renders him the logical model for West's contemplations. The degree to which this now-you-see-it-now-you-don't narrative lens becomes distracting, even annoying, depends largely on the individual playgoer's familiarity with the events depicted onstage as they unfolded more than fifty years agoa demographic encompassing an entire generation of would-be hipsters and a substantial number of their descendants.
The cast assembled by Marti Lyons adheres strictly to West's double image, never betraying their source material by a covert wink or exaggerated mannerism, while Matthew Chapman's sound design carefully evades any telltale vocal stylings ( coming no closer than the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for the Man" ). Their discipline, while admirable, makes for a dramatic tone perhaps too scholarly for its topic, but welcome levity is manifest in Mary Williamson's delightfully outrageousand surprisingly accuratedrag turn as the gay Ginsberg-surrogate serenely dispensing hallucinogens and zen wisdom.