Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through June 23
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I confess I haven’t read “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow’s classic, 1953 coming-of-age novel. I tried several times but just couldn’t get into it.
Still, there’s no question that Court Theatre’s world premiere of “The Adventures of Augie March,” playwright David Auburn’s three-plus hour adaptation, is a monumental achievement. It’s also singularly appropriate for Court since Auburn, who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hyde Park-set “Proof,” is a University of Chicago alumnus, and Bellow was a faculty member for three decades.
The picaresque novel signals the city’s importance in Augie’s famous opening lines: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”
One problem for Auburn was picking which of the hundreds of encounters and characters to include. He also needed to shape them in some way, so the story isn’t just a series of unrelated episodes.
Although the structure sometimes seems on shaky ground, especially in early scenes of Augie’s childhood that follow a flashback from his near-death experience as a merchant marine in a lifeboat with a lunatic after a U-boat attack, extended accounts fare better and sometimes are very funny. These range from Augie’s time as a book thief hanging out with student rebels on the South Side to an escapade with a wildly impulsive socialite who pursues him and then decides they should go to Mexico with an eagle trained to hunt giant iguanas.
The overall arc is that Augie is more acted upon than acting—until he finally decides not to let other people tell him what to do or to control his life. His epiphany comes in the lifeboat, where he almost lets the crazy Basteshaw prevent him from lighting a smudge pot to attract help. The novel’s opening lines reflect this determination to become his own man and are repeated several times during the play.
Thanks to Patrick Mulvey’s nuanced performance as Augie, a terrific ensemble, and Charles Newell’s canny direction, we see this anti-hero mature from a confused youth who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life to a more confident adult with some sense of direction. We also share what’s happening from his perspective, a trick Auburn accomplishes partly by having almost mute or unlikely characters occasionally utter profound philosophical observations.
Augie’s willingness to go with the flow starts with his early home life. Fatherless, he lets the domineering woman known as “Grandma” (Marilyn Dodds Frank) bully his terrified, near-blind mother (Chaon Cross) and order his “feeble-minded” younger brother, Georgie (Travis Turner), to be put in a home. He also idolizes his older brother, Simon (Luigi Sottile), who betrays him by failing to send money he was supposed to and later tries to convince him to marry Esther (Abby Pierce), the sister of his rich fiancé, to further his schemes.
Augie’s other misadventures include letting a buddy persuade him to help rob a luggage store and agreeing to Dingbat’s (BrittneyLove Smith) request that he act as corner man for an ill-equipped boxer’s match in Michigan, which leaves him stranded with no way home. So, he bums around, hopping boxcars for a month (this is during the Depression), but when he finally returns to Chicago, he loses his job as helper to wheelchair-bound Einhorn (Judd), Dingbat’s half-brother and a businessman of questionable repute.
Goodhearted Augie also gets into trouble whenever he tries to help someone. For example, his efforts to aid his friend Mimi (Aurora Real de Asua) obtain an abortion result in him losing Simon’s love and Esther, even though he isn’t the father of Mimi’s child or having an affair with her. But that’s just when Thea (Cross) tracks him down, sparking their passionate relationship and trip to Mexico, which also ends in disaster. Romance only starts to go right for him when he rescues Stella (Pierce) from a dangerous lover in Mexico, though that contributes to his break-up with Thea.
The attitude toward women is, for me, the most disturbing aspect of the play and one reason I had trouble with Bellow’s novel. The men routinely talk about them in unflattering and sexualized terms, and they are depicted as pathetic or predatory more often than not. Not surprisingly, we don’t see much of Augie’s one successful relationship. Indeed, the outcome is a surprise. I guess it’s important to remember that this is the product of mid-Twentieth-century thinking, but the misogyny is unpleasant.
If “The Adventures of Augie March” is hard to script, it’s almost impossible to stage. John Culbert’s pitch-dark scenic design, with a framework that looks like a riveted bridge and lots of chalk writing, allows for the fluid flow of the action to many locations with the help of his lighting and Andre Pluess’ sound design. Sally Dolembo’s costumes, which need to encompass several decades and accommodate bare-footed actors playing multiple characters, have a timeless quality. There’s a considerable amount of choreographed movement by Erin Kilmurray, including a bunch of wooden chairs being tossed around, but not all of it worked for me.
The liveliest—and funniest—segment is the time in Mexico. Manual Cinema Studios, responsible for Court’s “Frankenstein” earlier this season, designed the inspired puppetry. Shadow puppets ranging from an eagle named Caligula to his iguana prey pair with human silhouettes of Augie, Thea, and their guide behind a scrim, and the pinnacle is a many-feathered hand puppet of Caligula that Thea operates with aplomb.
While more work could make “The Adventures of Augie March” tighter and clear up some details—like when the action is taking place—overall the production rounds out Court’s topnotch season on a high note.