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Lookingglass Theatre Company

It's interesting to speculate about what might have happened to pop music if the Beatles had chosen to star in Up Against It, whose dark, satirical film script had been commissioned from Joe Orton, master of subversive British farce. Instead of pursuing inconsequential druggie movies like Yellow Submarine and the made-for-TV Magical Mystery Tour and taking soul-searching journeys to see the Maharishi Yogi, they might have become a potent revolutionary force.

Of course such a film would probably have drawn the wrath of British censors and been quickly pulled. And mainstream American audiences, perplexed by the references to British politics and the sight of the Fab Four dressing up in women's clothing, would have stayed away in droves. Only now would we be appreciating how truly ahead of its time the script was as we watched it in late-night showings on crappy projectors at university theaters.

Unfortunately, the Beatles played it safe and turned the script down. Soon after, Orton was murdered. The film was never produced, and Lennon and McCartney told all those calling for a revolution that you could count them out. Maybe Orton should have offered it to the Stones.

It's probably just as well the film wasn't made, because if it had been there's no way we'd be watching Lookingglass Theatre's adaptation. Maybe this production is 25 years too late to have any political effect, but from an artistic or entertainment standpoint it blows away anything else I've seen in Chicago this year.

It isn't hard to see why the Beatles didn't do the script. Like their other movies, it has a dizzyingly manic pace and a loopy collection of characters. But this melange of slapstick comedy, cheesy adventure, silly romance, and rock-and-roll energy also skewers every conceivable target in 60s Britain, from upper-crust twits to immoral politicians to empty-headed revolutionaries. The Beatles might have been musical geniuses, but their political sentiments were never particularly profound. No doubt the concept of playing hapless British insurrectionists who become fugitives from justice after blowing up the prime minister wasn't in keeping with the lyrics to "All You Need Is Love." Ringo probably wouldn't have relished playing the dunderhead Christopher Low, who becomes the sex toy of a high-ranking woman in British government with a fetish for bondage and dressing up her conquests in ladies' underthings. And surely Paul wouldn't have appreciated playing the lovelorn simp Ian McTurk, who cruelly refuses the advances of bookish spinster Patricia Drumgoole while pursuing an impossible love affair with the flighty debutante Rowena Torrence.

With its irreverent tone and penchant for breaking social taboos, Up Against It seems less a vehicle for hit pop tunes than a precursor of the antiestablishment films of Lindsay Anderson (If . . .) and the absurdist skits of Monty Python. As Ian McTurk, Christopher Low, and the revolutionary leader Jack Ramsay careen through underground meetings, Albert Hall, prison, a luxury pleasure ship, the salty brine of the sea, and a trench on the battlefront before arriving at the hallowed halls of aristocratic power, there's little time for an impromptu concert on some rooftop a la Let It Be.

Whether the script is great literature is questionable. There are a few too many groan-inducing jokes. ("The chair has a broken leg." "Have you sent for a doctor?") And many of the characters are carelessly drawn, especially the women, who fall into stereotypical categories: rich princess, emasculating amazon, dowdy librarian. Still, the script would have made one hell of a movie.

And Lookingglass Theatre turns it into one hell of a show. Directed at a breakneck pace by Bruce Norris, the Lookkingglass ensemble plunges recklessly into the script, charging breathlessly from one hilarious picaresque adventure to another. Driven by a hard-rocking score of original 60s-style numbers by members of the ensemble, the show comes off as the great rock opera Pete Townshend and Ray Davies were too pretentious to write. The songs range from giddy psychedelia to surf guitar romp to college shout, and even when they falter (a striptease number with cheesy lyrics that recalls Sheena Easton's rendition of Prince's "Sugar Walls" and a closing number that sounds out of place--more like Liz Phair than the Beatles) they maintain the show's exhilarating rhythm.

The cast make an amazingly tight ensemble, with so much energy that their performances recall the speeded-up sequences in Help! and A Hard Day's Night. Joy Gregory's performance as the pathetic Patricia Drumgoole, who nearly drowns at sea before winding up as a singer in a Latin band, and as the timekeeper for Lookingglass's house band is close to perfection.

But what really energizes this show is its astonishing visual imagery and stagecraft. A shadow-play sequence in which the heroes are chased out of town by pitchfork-wielding locals and a scene of the lads and Drumgoole trying to swim safely to shore alongside a school of fish are entirely original, exhilaratingly comic, and stunningly artistic. And much better than the calculated commercialism of pseudo-rock musicals like Hair (Aack!) or Tommy (Oy). This is the first production I've seen that effortlessly fuses the heightened language of theater with the energy and anarchic spirit of rock 'n' roll.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Caitlin.

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