One of the joys of living in Chicago is the special quality of its scruffy storefront theater, although I must confess that during my 20 years here as a film reviewer, I took advantage of this resource only rarely, apart from a few intermittent discoveries over the years (such as the 21-year-old Theatre Oobleck, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon and savor in some of its earliest productions). More recently, since my retirement from the Chicago Reader, I’ve happily come across no less than four separate theaters of this kind in my own neighborhood so far, and over the past two Friday evenings I’ve had the pleasure of attending very impressive productions of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Strawdog (on 3829 North Broadway) and, tonight, Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata at the Oracle just a few doors down from there (on 3809 North Broadway).
The Strawdog’s funky and entertaining version of Brecht (see above) has had the benefit of a thoughtful and passionate rave from the Reader’s Albert Williams, so the performance I attended was nearly sold out. But the Oracle’s Strindberg, despite a mainly favorable capsule in the same paper from Kerry Reid, shockingly had only seven customers at the performance I attended tonight, making us a slightly smaller crowd than the production’s able cast of eight. (The Oracle is also a more modest place, I hasten to add — with a normal seating capacity of only 24, if I counted correctly.) Part of this difference can undoubtedly be attributed to the more unfashionable aspects of Strindberg, combined with the fact that The Ghost Sonata is now a ripe 103 years old, an obstacle hinted at in some of the reviews of this production that I’ve read, despite the fact that these are mainly favorable. And I must confess that certain aspects of this play eluded me as well. Yet the nearly constant magic-show inventiveness of Max Truax’s expressionist direction, working hand in glove with the sets (credited jointly to Truax and Brieanne Hauger), Michal Janicki’s unnervingly mysterious video, and the volatile performances — all contriving to suggest various kinds of mental projections, contortions, and displacements, and spatial foreshortenings or extensions, as seen and experienced through a troubled mind’s eye — kept me enthralled even when I found myself getting lost in the maze of the plot. This production. in short, has a nightmarish intensity and a creepy authenticity that shouldn’t be missed [5/14/10].