Sister Carrie/How Much Is Your Iron? | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Sister Carrie/How Much Is Your Iron?


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Touchstone Theatre


Rare Terra Theatre

at the Project

There are two traditional reasons for producing plays that are set in or were written in eras different from our own. The piece may be a historical monument, providing a means of understanding the era's social and political mores. Watching it, we get a clearer picture of where we are today and how we've gotten here. Another reason is that the play's themes are timeless and universal. Touchstone Theatre's Sister Carrie and Rare Terra Theatre's How Much Is Your Iron? both attempt to do both these things, and succeed at neither.

Sister Carrie, adapted by Tom Creamer from Theodore Dreiser's first novel, leans more toward the historically relevant side. The turn-of- the-century book is something of a classic of its time, a coming-of-age story about a young Wisconsin girl's adventures, first in Chicago and then in New York. Its naturalistic style, refusal to romanticize characters, and contention that life in urban America was corrupt and unfair and that social advancement had little to do with goodness or justice scandalized the publishing world. It became very popular partly for that reason, and partly for its familiar setting.

Touchstone Theatre uses period costumes and properties to point up how important the era is to the story. But Sister Carrie also tries to say something about complacency and desire. All the characters are simply trying to survive, and they grab at whatever happiness they can find. Some succeed, to varying degrees. Most fail. But all of them raise the question: what is necessary in life, what enables us to be comfortable with ourselves?

This play should be both historically relevant and timeless and universal. But somehow Touchstone's production fails to illuminate either aspect of the novel. The problems seem to be evenly distributed between the adaptation (Creamer has done much more successful ones, most notably Goodman's Christmas Carol) and the three leading actors.

Creamer sticks close to the book's essential action until the very end, when several important moments are omitted. But his structure is so loose as to be almost nonexistent. He uses short scenes that shift from place to place, a sort of Nicholas Nickleby without the narration. And without either a narrator or longer scenes to better establish the mood and plot, Creamer's Sister Carrie winds up as a series of seemingly random occurrences. The characters don't seem to feel much, and the scenes don't give us much information about life in the big city in the 1890s. Creamer also seems to have left it up to the actors to supply the characters' motivations.

Unfortunately, the lead actors aren't up to the task. None of them plays with the central question of what happiness or contentment might mean. Mary Linda Moss, who never comes out of her shy-little-girl-on-the-train routine, offers no clues as to why Carrie makes the decisions she does. Moss seems to have decided that her character simply wants to get married and go to the theater. And since by the end of the play Carrie both is a famous actress and has marriage proposals rolling in, her final unhappiness is mystifying.

N. Marion Polus has some lovely moments as Carrie's second lover, Hurstwood, when he's down-and-out; but as a gentleman he's wooden and emotionless. Despite the way his part is written, Carrie seems to have no effect on him--it's only when he has no money and no place to live that he cracks.

David T. Coral, a bumblingly sweet Drouet (Carrie's first lover), has trouble with the stilted language and is unable to make such colloquialisms as "Gee, she's a real peach" sound natural. He also makes Drouet seem completely content with his life--except for one brief explosion, he's unchangingly serene.

There are lots of fine performances in Sister Carrie, but in the small parts. Sean Baldwin stands out in a number of tiny roles, particularly as Hurstwood's spoiled cad of a son--his shenanigans at the breakfast table are more interesting than the dialogue--and as a sweet, sad nonunion scab. Larry Hart is quirky and engrossing in his various roles, as are Adrianne Cury as the life-filled Mrs. Vance and the beautiful Gintara Marija Kizys as both Hurstwood's spoiled daughter and a chorus girl. (Kizys's chorus girl is so precise and charismatic that it's hard to figure out why the audiences of the plays within the play prefer Carrie.) Kendall Marlowe as Bob Ames, the only decent, kind, and self- possessed character, exhibits an honest, straightforward acting style that's refreshing. Ray Thompson has almost nothing to do, yet his presence and naturalness enliven his few scenes.

The production is certainly beautiful. Set and lighting designer Kevin Snow has created an elegant, simple set featuring a lot of natural wood and a gorgeous colored overhang like the ones in old train stations. Snow's lighting isolates various levels of the set at different times, reflecting shifts in the mood and place. Patricia Hart's period costumes are not only lovely but make immediately clear who are the haves and who the have-nots. Ina Marlowe's staging makes the constantly shifting transitions from one location to another smooth and natural; the eye is subtly led to the place where the next scene is to begin. Even the scene changes are beautiful, choreographed almost like a dance.

But beauty is not substance. This Sister Carrie is soothing and lovely, but you forget it as soon as you leave your seat.

Unlike the Touchstone actors, the players in Rare Terra Theatre's How Much Is Your Iron? are absolutely clear on the question of historical relevance versus timeless and universal values. In fact, there's an ongoing debate about it during scene changes. Two of the actors even have a standoff during one of these scene breaks, one chanting "historical relevancy" and the other "timeless and universal." But despite their clear knowledge of the issue, director Ian Streicher and his cast don't make a decision on it, and by refusing to take a stand, they make the play neither. Instead, it is an exercise in banality.

Bertolt Brecht's How Much Is Your Iron? is an obvious parable about the invasion of Europe by the Nazis and the danger of arms trades. Each character represents a country--Mr. Austrian, Mrs. Czech, Messrs. Britt and Gall. The arms dealer is Sweden/ Mr. Svendson, while his buddy Denmark/Dansen carries--literally--the key to his warehouse. Actually Svendson merely sells the raw iron, but everyone knows that it's made into weapons. He claims to be neutral, while Germany--I mean the Stranger--goes around breaking truces, killing people, and taking over their countries--oops, stores.

You get the picture. The play itself is a little simpleminded. Still, Brecht can be a director's playground, and this piece is no exception. Almost because the ideas are so intentionally obvious, directors are given free rein to use all of their tricks just to keep the audience's attention while bashing them over the head with the lesson. As Brecht says in Brecht on Theatre, "Theatre remains theatre even when it is instructive theatre, and in so far as it is good theatre, it will amuse." And although the ideas are obvious, they are lessons we have yet to learn. In this country, we still fail to take responsibility for the arms we sell to countries whose politics we abhor.

But director Streicher refuses to either take a stand on what he's trying to say or showcase his theatrical talents. Every aspect of the production shows his fluctuation between historical relevance and timeless ethical issues. Although the other costumes are modern, Mrs. Czech's costume seems to have been designed with an attempt at prewar authenticity. Czech also sports a vague accent, while everyone else is blatantly Americanized. If Streicher is trying to say that the Czech role was historically more important, it doesn't work. It merely comes off as one of many inconsistencies. If, as I suspect, it was the actress's choice, Streicher should have stopped her. The addition of the scene- changing interactions between the actors and audience is an intellectually interesting way of obtaining Brecht's famous alienation effect, but what they end up saying is trite and boring. To repeat an ancient acting adage: don't tell me, show me.

Rare Terra's production shows nothing. Nothing is exciting visually, aurally, or texturally. If you really want a lesson on ethics and arms dealing, I suggest reading either a history of World War II or the transcripts of the Iran-contra hearings. They say almost the same thing, and in a much more dramatic way.

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