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Southbound/A Short Evening of Longing

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SOUTHBOUND

at the Theatre Building

A SHORT EVENING OF LONGING

La Barraca '90

at the Synergy Center

Southbound arrived with all the hoopla of a Grateful Dead marathon, while La Barraca's A Short Evening of Longing opened as shyly as a childhood secret. And though it would be unfair to fault Southbound for being a more commercial, "safe" venture--it's extremely enjoyable for what it is--you'd do well to journey to Bucktown for a glimpse of the darker side of the universe.

John Ruane constructed Southbound around nine songs by Charles Silliman (Ruane also contributed to the lyrics). The story concerns a singer-songwriter named Sean Gonnigan, a former rocker who abandoned his going-nowhere career to compose jingles for an advertising agency, thereby providing his wife and daughter with suburban security. When a snowstorm delays him in a Chicago subway one evening, he makes the acquaintance of Paul Smith, a street musician lamenting the loss of his band but still looking for Lady Luck to throw some change into his guitar case. Soon Sean begins to feel the stirrings of the old dreams--but will he remain stranded, waiting for that southbound train to bury him in the 'burbs, or will he follow his bliss and return to the righteous rat race of rock and roll?

This could be conveyed in a three-minute video, and Ruane is hard put to stretch this tenuous dramatic question to cover all the breaks between the musical numbers. Much of the filler consists of a sitcom subplot in which Sean's worried wife endures the boorish behavior of an abominable snowman from next door. Another bit is an abortive stickup in the subway that ultimately accomplishes nothing but the bonding of Sean and Paul, who both risk their lives in defense of the guitars. There are also the standard obstructions and annoyances of Chicago public transportation: trains that stand in the station with doors shut; trains that charge through stations without stopping; trains that suddenly announce emergency express routes that bypass your stop. On the other hand, no amount of bad weather has ever stopped the "Love Train"--but that conductor's cheerful talk is mocking here, juxtaposed with the ill-timed robbery attempt. (CTA riders can explain the happy-rapping Love Train to automobile theatergoers, but no one will be able to explain why Sean gets so indignant over frustrations that veteran subway riders have come to accept stoically.)

In the long run, it's better to just kick back and enjoy the songs, all of which are as easily digested as a Dove Bar. The accompanying band, seen dimly behind a scrim (they're Paul's memories of his former squadron), help to flesh out the slightly deja vu compositions--a touch of Paul Simon here, a dash of Don McLean there, a big dollop of Barbra Streisand in Meg Gonnigan's solos. All are orchestrated and performed with the furrowed-brow earnestness, occasional involuntary atonalities, and ragged finishes characteristic of theatrical rock 'n' roll. The songs are eminently serviceable, however, in particular the sweet "Tunnel of Dreams" and the vigorous "Can't Take You Away" (which could become a rock-and-roll anthem if the soundboard operator ever gets the microphone levels right). The most memorable number is "Choo Choo," a chug-a-chug-a ditty that is no "City of New Orleans" but makes even a ride on an urban electric train seem exciting and full of promise.

Noel Olken, who plays Paul, has actually logged time in Europe as a street musician, so it's ironic that his character comes across as the most bogus in this patently make-believe story. Olken somewhat redeems his wandering minstrel, however, with a gritty and mischievous charm. Joe Morgan's Sean also has a smiling, fresh-faced boyishness, in addition to a soaring tenor voice reminiscent of John Denver in his Mitchell Trio days. As the devoted wife, Meg, Mary Jo Licata has a nice sense of comic timing as well as a voice that can leap two octaves at a single bound. And the nonsinging Jim O'Heir delivers a fearless, if sometimes self-indulgent, performance as the neighbor Jack Roman.

Licata also doubles in background vocals with the band--Tom Jasek on drums, Ed Carlson on bass, and the redoubtable David Whitehouse on keyboards. Phil Lombard's set looks like a subway station--if subway stations were decorated by the same people who did the Blue Mesa restaurant. Dan Richardson's sound design captures the urban-transit ambience perfectly.

If Southbound is a big, bodacious sunrise of a show, A Short Evening of Longing is a moonbeam peeking out from the darkness. In fact one of the two plays making up this late-night program is Federico Garcia Lorca's Romance de la luna, luna ("The Boy Who Loved the Moon"); the other is The Wax Museum, by Canadian playwright John Hawkes.

The Wax Museum introduces us to Bingo, a museum guard enamored of a uniformed figure she calls George; she alternately chafes at and fondles the unresponsive swain, with a voracious lust bred of claustrophobic frustration. Into this dysfunctional "relationship" comes Sally Ann, whose fiance is downstairs in the Chamber of Horrors--an exhibit of gruesome historical homicides, which the timid Sally Ann shrinks from viewing. Bingo proceeds to intimidate Sally Ann with images of agony and ecstasy, and eventually seduces her victim into surrendering her food, her clothes, and finally her identity. When the fiance returns to fetch his intended, it is Bingo who sashays off to meet him, and Sally Ann who nestles in the protective arms of the lifeless George.

What distinguishes this retelling of a standard gothic-horror fantasy is the superlative acting of Krista Strutz as the virginal Sally Ann and Margaret Halkin as the ruthless Bingo. Under the direction of Kenn L.D. Frandsen, the two enact their eerie pas de deux with a concentrated intensity that fascinates and hypnotizes, as do the woman-to-woman erotics--the steamiest since Unidentified Human Remains, with a fraction of the nudity. (A mannequin from Marshall Field's, circa 1920, makes an adequate George, but falls short of the attraction these female Pygmalions would have us believe he possesses.)

Romance de la luna, luna (performed in Spanish, with an English translation in the program), like most of Garcia Lorca's dramatic pieces, is not a play in the linear or literary sense so much as it is an evocation of mood through music, dance, and poetry. Though incorporating many of the same elements as the recent La Petenera (which theatergoers may remember from the Off Off Loop Theater Festival), this play is better grounded, using the framing device of a poet and two musicians playing cards in a tavern. Hearing a gitano song outside, the poet begins to tell the tale of a boy who tried to warn the moon away from the gypsies, who would have stolen her gold and silver light; he's kidnapped by the moon as his reward for meddling. Interwoven with the florid language of the story are the gentle voices of the Andalusian nomads, the staccato volleys of the flamenco dancer's heels, and the intricate cante-jondo ("deep song") of the guitar--once described by Luis Antonio de Vega as "the means through which man reaches God without the intervention of saints or angels."

This second La Barraca production again features the virtuoso classical guitar of Tomas de Utrera (try to sit where you can see his hands); he's assisted by Nelson Soza, also on guitar. Also back again is the electrifying flamenco dancer La Poli (nee Polley Thomas), who gives her footfalls all the tonal variety of a jazz drummer on a full trap set. Dancing in a more conventional manner in the role of the Moon, Michelle Banks, though she's a fine performer, cannot help but be--well, eclipsed. The same is true of Carolina Soza as the Boy and Frank Rosario as the Poet, both of whom recite Garcia Lorca's lyrical speeches with skill and sensitivity but cannot match the firepower of de Utrera and Poli.

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