Goodman Theatre (Albert)

We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time

  At the Goodman Albert Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago—The Goodman Theatre has requested that reviews of “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” refrain from including revealing aspects of the plot. That limits discussion, especially of the last half of the work, but it’s fair play to observe that the show is continuously engrossing, occasionally funny, and ultimately stunning in its intensity.

        “Alive” is a one-man show that runs 90 minutes without an intermission. The performer is David Cale, an English actor with an international reputation as a monologist. This is his 7th appearance at Goodman, starting in 1988.  Goodman artistic director Robert Falls is a particular admirer of Cale’s work and directs “Alive” with unobtrusive sensitivity, insight, and dramatic impact.

        On stage Cale is supported by a six-piece chamber music ensemble that sits at the rear of the stage in total darkness until lights illuminate the group as it plays its musical accompaniment (music by Cale and lyrics by Cale and Matthew Dean Marsh) that expands and comments on Cale’s story. Cale does not have a trained voice but his singing is expressive and often moving.

        “Alive” is an autobiographical voyage through Cale’s life beginning with his early years in the grubby industrial town of Luton, a city so depressing it became a national joke in Britain, earning frequent satirical references on the Monty Python comedy program on BBC television. Cale is the narrator and also assumes the characters of his mother and father as they battle through their dysfunctional marriage. The mother is at the heart of the story, evoked with great empathy by Cale with just a slight change in vocal delivery. The mother was a woman who married beneath her to a man who was to become abusive and an alcoholic.

Photo credit: Liz Lauren

      Cale and his younger brother tried to navigate as best they could through the emotional and psychological minefield their home life had become. As a distraction from this domestic war zone, David converted a nearby shed into a hospital for injured animals and especially birds. The boy became a bird breeder who took responsibility for feeding and caring for 300 tropical birds.

   Cale conveys the stresses of his home life with an informality and intimacy that converts the large Albert Theatre into a living room where the audience sits as if listening to a friendly extended chat. Cale himself is scarcely a glamorous figure, wearing casual clothes and speaking with a light English accent that makes no attempt to replicate an urbane BBC style. He’s a regular guy telling a turbulent story with clarity and informality.

        Cale remains a comfortable looking figure even as the dramatic temperature of his narrative escalates. The show is really an account of his mother’s tragic life, with her son as bystander. Life did not deal fairly with the woman, but she was caught in the time warp of lower class England in the mid 20th century when females without independent means or supporting families worked in factories and married the blue color lads in their community.

        Outwardly Cale tells a straightforward story, but “Alive” is an intricate drama, blending chamber music and singing with Cale’s fascinating narrative. From his opening lines, Cale has the audience hooked. His story comes across as realistic and inevitable—no melodrama, no sentimental excesses, no soap opera.

I suspect that the nuanced hand of Robert Falls is a major force in integrating music and narrative into a seamless whole.

                    Photo credit: Liz Lauren

        The visual production is minimalist. Cale’s performance is enclosed by three black frames. He occasionally sits on a stool, speaking and singing into microphones that rise from the stage. At the beginning of the action the audience sees a collection of stylized birdcages suspended from the rafters and later a group of model airplanes briefly make an appearance hung from the young Cale’s invisible boyhood ceiling. But the viewer’s attention is always on Cale throughout the performance, complemented by the emergence and disappearance of the chamber music group. The show would seem more appropriate for Goodman’s smaller Owen studio theater but so accessible is Cale’s acting and stage presence that the nearly 900-seat Albert Theatre fits the presentation just right.

        For the record, Kevin Depinet designed the set, Paul Marlow Cale’s costume, Jennifer Tipton the lighting, and Mikhail Fiksel the sound plan. The chamber music group consists of music director/pianist Matthew Dean Marsh, David Belden (viola), Michelle Campbell (harp), Desiree Miller (cello), Jered Montgomery (trumpet), and Anna Najoom (clarinet).

        Respecting Goodman’s request that the reviewer avoid including describing certain aspects of the plot, the above comments don’t reveal descriptions that takes the viewer by the throat as the play proceeds. Let it suffice that this is a work that reaches hypnotic and horrific intensity at its peak and will leave viewers limp at the end. I can’t recall when I’ve seen so much powerful drama and such finely tuned acting and staging in such a short and basic production. This is Cale’s highly personal story and only he knows how much it takes out of him every performance. But for the audience it’s an overwhelming experience.

                                 The show gets a rating of 

“We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” runs through October 21 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $70. Call 312 443 3800 or visit

Contact Dan:                                  September 2018

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