Playwright: Shawn Pfautsch. At: The House Theater of Chicago at the Chopin, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets: 773-769-3832; www.thehousetheatre.com; $25-$35. Runs through: Oct. 26
This is a play aimed at audiences who know how plays are madeor who want to know how plays are made. The playmakers, in this case, are the Bad Settlement Theatre Company ( BSTC ), and its season line-up: The Great Gatsby, Balm in Gilead and an original adaptation of the American classic, Moby Dick. ( Chicago theater history buffs may recall pioneering productions of these same plays, mounted by the Wisdom Bridge, Steppenwolf and Remains companies in 1991, 1980 and 1982, respectively. Any similarities between real-life events and the shenanigans depicted in Shawn Pfautsch's "love letter" to his craft, however, are the secrets of first-hand witnesses. )
As we follow the backstage progress of each show's preparation and execution, we are made aware of the difference between stage combat and actual combat, of the immeasurable value of stage managers and of insider lore both technicalextra points if you know what a "Leko" isand thespic. ( A Hollywood actor, accustomed to quick shoots, collapses in confusion when confronted by the demands of character analysis. ) Tying together these disparate elements is BSTC Director Ben Adonna's radical reimagining of Melville's sprawling novela visionary translation whose analogies grow increasingly nebulous ( and expense, extravagant ) as its creator goes increasingly bugfeathers in forging his magnum opus.
Pfautsch risks a similar fate attempting to impose upon an already multi-layered parable an allegorical dimension based in so varied an experience as "putting on a show." Time and place are unspecified ( though a performance space in an abandoned motel suggests an exurban locale ), but reference is made to other theater openings nearly every night. Standing in for the eponymous whale is a sole theater critic endowed with make-or-break power whose baroque observations hit print barely hours after curtain calla 1930s-era stereotype no longer existing even in old-school New York City.
These omissions are significant becausewithout knowing whether Bad Settlement is one of several artistic collectives occupying a thriving theater district, or a lone planks-and-passion projectthere's no explanation of why a messianic meshuggener like Adonna is allowed to get away with his extravagant antics; it's not as if his crew were stranded at sea, after all.
"Ambitious" is a term often invoked as a euphemism for "biting off more than you can chew," and while the messiness of House Theatre's final preview was undeniable, it's no crime for a playwright's reach to exceed his grasp. There's no shortage of theater companies undone by fish stories initiated with far less potential than evident in Pfautsch's merely unfinished epic.