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Archangels Don't Play Pinball


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Chicago Actors Ensemble

Archangels Don't Play Pinball is a hoot. It's a laugh riot. It's--you know--zany, wacky, off the wall; it's all those things. There's even a word for it in the play: "wonky." This is one wonky show.

It may, however, be a little too wonky for its author, Dario Fo. Chicago Actors Ensemble bills Archangels Don't Play Pinball as a farce that combines political-satirical content with Brechtian form. The form I understand. Like most of Brecht's plays, this one has an episodic structure, some down and dirty songs, and plenty of self-references. But that political satire is pretty heavily disguised. There are plenty of corrupt officials scattered around to give us a hint as to what Fo thinks about government. But this production is so rollicking and wild that the politics get completely lost in the silliness of the farce. Still, the farce is brilliant.

The atmosphere is set as soon as you walk in the theater. A very tense guy in sunglasses sits in the front row reading a tabloid, what appeared to me to be a "best of" the Star. By the time the first production number was over ("Watch Out for the Tilt," comparing life to a game of pinball), and the shifty-looking guys singing it had dragged the guy reading the Star onstage with them, I was in a wonky state of mind and ready for anything. Good thing, too, because anything and everything is what Archangels Don't Play Pinball is all about.

The story follows the hilarious and increasingly macabre adventures of a member of a street gang named Lofty (the Star reading fellow). He falls in love and sets off for Rome to collect his veteran's pension so that he can escape the gang and start life anew with his sweetheart, Angela. But at every juncture, Lofty is tormented and sidetracked by peculiar people who mysteriously have the same faces as his old cronies. His adventures of the next few hours include curing hiccups, beating up vicious government clerks, and becoming indentured to a mad magician, among many other things. Some of the gadgets we see along the way are an exploding Pez container, a decapitated Barbie doll, and a hot dog on a leash. Lots of people run around with their pants off. And somehow, it all ends up making some kind of sense.

That's some kind of sense; when you get right down to it, Archangels Don't Play Pinball is confusing all the way around. The characters are all messing with each other's heads, and in the process, the audience's minds become addled too. Even the intermission is confusing, coming as it does, an hour and a half into the show. And sometimes, it's hard to tell where Fo's messing stops and the ensemble's starts.

There's certainly been some messing with the script. References to Jesse Helms and the Reader are obviously not Fo's doing. But the beauty of this production is that you can't always tell what's scripted and what isn't. Fo's play is so out there, and the actors are so in tune with it, that the blend is almost seamless. And even when the actors clearly step outside Fo's boundaries the spontaneity only enhances the script.

Directors Rick Helweg and Hilary MacAustin have created a world in which anything can and does happen. All of the designers do an effective job in balancing reality with whimsy, and keeping the shabbiness of the environment from being depressing. Especially wonderful is Marc A. Nelson's sound design. Nelson brings us into the show with larger-than-life epic adventure music, complete with giant crescendos. Once the "picture" has begun, he shifts into tinkly piano for scene changes, which gives the whole piece a vaudeville feel.

The talents of the ensemble are varied, but Helweg and MacAustin have molded them into such a cohesive unit that it doesn't matter. Everyone is zealous in their commitment to the outrageous. Everyone in the ensemble plays numerous parts, and each have their strong moments. A few actors do stand out. Marc A. Nelson is marvelous in all his roles, but particularly as the Joe Friday-type detective and the flighty corrupt mayor. Shawn Durr's Lofty is an astounding blend of hero and madman, whose variations in Fo's lines have hilarious results. And while Lofty's seeming madness often stems from the madness of the world around him, Durr takes it further than any of his cohorts and Lofty's brilliance shines through--even in a Sylvester the Cat imitation.

Not to be outdone, Michele Cole's Angela is a living icon, the most adorable tart with a heart of gold I've ever seen. Like Leslie Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria, Cole's nasal, New York showgirl voice, and style to match, are perfect. And she manages to keep that voice intact without it becoming annoying or stupid. Her enactment of a whole two-person scene all by herself is a highlight.

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