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THEATER REVIEW The Jungle
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2014-07-30

This article shared 5142 times since Wed Jul 30, 2014
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Playwright: Matt Foss, adapted from Upton Sinclair's novel. At: Oracle Productions, 3809 N. Broadway. Tickets: www.publicaccesstheatre.org; free ( but reservations essential ). Runs through: Sept. 6

This world-premiere adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel extends Oracle Productions' examination of U.S. capitalism, this time shifting from the not-as-silly-as-it-seems satire of The President ( the troupe's previous show ), to the tragic opposite extreme of the feeding chain: exploited immigrant labor in the Chicago stockyards circa 1900. This visually and physically creative production exemplifies imagination, daring, commitment and passion in the service of a strong story, and all done on a budget. I'd call now for reservations. Tickets are free, but with only 44 seats they go fast, especially for an exciting show such as this one.

Adapted and directed by Matt Foss ( who also designed set and props ), this production focuses on the first half of The Jungle—roughly through the death of hero Jurgis Rudkus' wife—with many characters and events eliminated along the way. Those deeply familiar with The Jungle may be disappointed, especially as Foss emphasizes the human story over Sinclair's vivid descriptions of the meat-packing process ( subject of newspaper articles by Sinclair leading to the novel ). However, most viewers will be caught up in the too-familiar story of an immigrant family exploited, underpaid, cheated, conned, robbed and raped. Indeed, so much is going on ( not to mention what's left out ) that one wonders why Foss packs it all into 90 minutes when he might have created a larger—perhaps mightier—epic adaptation.

But pack it in he does, and audiences will be surprised and impressed at the very clever means used to suggest the work, sweat, stench and steam of the slaughterhouses. The production is enlarged by costume designer Joan Pritchard's effective mix of long skirts, babushkas, cloth caps, vests and somber colors to suggest working class garb, and also by Nicholas Tonozzi's incidental music, played and sung live, suggesting everything from church hymns to labor anthems to harsh industrial noise ( yet never too loud for the tiny space, hooray! ).

Travis Delgado as Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis, leads a fine ensemble with physical and emotional strength ( although with surprisingly few words ), redeeming his bland performance in The President in which he wasn't the central figure. Stephanie Polt is appealing and affecting as Ona, his wife, although the condensed script really has little time or space for character development.

My grandfather arrived in Chicago in 1895, speaking no English and with tailoring his only skill ( and tailors were a dime-a-dozen then ), yet somehow he escaped the urban jungle that consumes Jurgis. It's a reminder that The Jungle is fiction, a reverse picaresque in which everything bad that might happen does happen, in part because of Jurgis' repeated gullibility. That doesn't diminish the story or Sinclair's call for social reforms, for the story continues and reform remains necessary wherever immigrant labor is exploited around the world.


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