The Adventures of Augie March
At the Court Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” is one of the great novels in American literature, a sprawling work that runs to more than 600 pages of rich prose. The Court Theatre commissioned Pulitzer Price-winning playwright David Auburn to adapt the novel into a play that concludes the current Court season. This isn’t the first American novel to be adapted into a drama by the Court, but it certainly is the most ambitious, maybe the most ambitious single project in the theater’s long and innovative history.
Auburn has carved out a long three act play from Bellow’s mountain of a novel (the opening night performance ran 3 hours and 15 minutes, including two intermissions.). The action covers about 25 years in the early 20th century over areas starting in Chicago and traveling as far as the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, New York City, and Mexico. The rambling narrative focuses on Augie March, who is carried along by a series of turbulent events, some funny and some serious, as he tries to define his life.
The novel has no coherent narrative. It consists of a series of mini stories about Augie’s adventures as he interacts with a seemingly endless string of vivid characters, most of whom tried to advise Augie how he should lead his life. Throughout it all, the restless Augie stumbles along, churning love affairs with women who are drawn to the attractive and vulnerable man.
Augie falls in with bad company, and for a time seems destined to a dead end life as a petty criminal. But something always turns up to right his life until the next downturn. Throughout the story, Augie is a decent man and his decency occasionally gets him in trouble. But he endures, if he never triumphs. The language is mostly realistic, but intermittently Bellow injects references to the fine arts, literature, the classics, philosophy, and the Bible. They work satisfactorily on the printed page but they are a little startling to the spectator who has to absorb intellectual profundities suddenly expressed by characters who otherwise are unlettered.
The playwright sets Augie’s life story as a flashback, beginning in World War II when he serves in the merchant marine, surviving a German submarine attack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Then the tale reverts to Augie as a nine-year old boy in Chicago in a poor and dysfunctional Jewish-Russian family dominated by the tyrannical Grandma Lausch. Augie flees his family, beginning his odyssey into the Great Depression as he attempts to define himself in the world.
The play is essentially a series of set pieces Auburn selected from the novel, like a long scene dramatizing Augie’s attempt to assist a lady friend in getting an abortion. Later in the evening, the play is given over to a phantasmagoric sequence in Mexico with Augie and lover Thea bizarrely trying to train an eagle into a show business act that would provide them with a much needed income.
Auburn and director Charles Newell made some interesting choices in their adaptation. The women wear monochromatic loose-fitting dresses throughout the play. The men wear costumes of only a little more variety. Augie never changes clothes. Everyone performs barefoot. Scenically, the action takes place on an open stage with enclosed by a jet black frame and rear backdrop of what looks like steel plates held by large rivets.
The minimalist set and the unchanging costumes solve the problem of how to cover an abundance of people and locations without getting bogged down in an unwieldy number of scenery and costume changes. The performers generally sit on plain wooden chairs at the rear of the stage, coming forward when their characters join the action. The device allows the many quick shifts from character to character the script calls for. The downside to this staging is that the story evokes little sense of time and place. Augie looks and talks the same as a nine-year old as in full maturity, so it’s hard to track his development through the years, if indeed there was any development. Augie really is the same questing character throughout the action’s extended time frame, attracting a collection of colorful men and women who continuously try to steer his life.
The production makes enormous demands on everyone involved, beginning with Patrick Mulvey, who is on stage virtually the entire show as both narrator and participant in the action. Mulvey credibly shows us a likable man who things just seem to happen to. His Augie hangs around with dubious characters but remains untarnished morally. The role requires remarkable stamina, with immense chunks of dialogue to memorize, as well as much physical activity. The weekend schedule calls for five performances in about 52 hours, a remarkable load the star carries off with intelligence and passion.
Mulvey is augmented by a terrific supporting cast of 12 players, each with at least one major complementary role. It would take too much space to itemize each role, but Chaon Cross can be singled out for her performance as the emotionally skittish Thea, and Abby Pierce as Stella, Augie’s other major love interest. But the remainder of the ensemble merits praise in equal measure, John Judd, Neil Friedman, Brittney Love Smith (in a delightful set of comic bits), Sebastian Arboleda, Kai Ealy, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Aurora Real de Asua, Luigi Sottile (particularly fine work as Augie’s erratic brother Simon), Stef Tovar, and Travis Turner.
Director Charles Newell superbly pulls the complex project together, with my interest actually increasing as the play went on. The team of designers provides invaluable creative and artistic input—John Culbert (scenic and light design), Sally Dolembo (costumes), and Andre Pluess (sound). A special salute goes to Manuel Cinema Studios for its spectacular puppet designs, especially the most inventive shadow puppetry I’ve ever seen.
This dramatic adaptation makes special demands on the viewer, just like the novel requires a considerable commitment from the reader. Even those who won’t love the Court version will admire it for its first rate acting, and the best scenes in the play can be enjoyed as outstanding playlets on their own. Augie March’s yearning for self definition may not be resolved in the adaptation, but it wasn’t resolved in the novel either. The show works best following Augie’s journey rather than the ambiguous ending. The story starts slowly in the first act, but it puts the audience in the presence of a collection of fascinating characters, and Mulvey’s Augie is absorbing company for three plus hours. This is a brave and mostly successful effort by the Court and all fans of Saul Bellow and serious theater should take note.
The show gets a rating.
“The Adventures of Augie March” runs through June 9 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $74. Call 773 753 4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 2019
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