The Chinese Art of Placement | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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The Chinese Art of Placement

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A little feng shui is a dangerous thing. That's the message of Stanley Rutherford's tragicomic one-character one-act, about a neurotic, socially inept middle-aged man who believes he's found the answer to all his problems in this mystical art. Sparky Litman, played by Howard Shalwitz, stands alone onstage talking about his life while he arranges his worldly goods along an imaginary axis, trying to enhance the "qi," or good energy, of his apartment. But unlike most monologuists, this one never gives an impression of self-understanding. In fact, much of the humor in this dark piece arises from the fact that Litman is a kind of anti-solo artist, utterly incapable of convincing us of the truth of his worldview. He thinks we see him as healthy, whole, and wise, but we know he's a mass of contradictions--at once shy and aggressive, self-effacing and utterly self-centered, passive and boiling over with anger and resentment. By the end of the play Litman's proudest achievement--he's given up writing poetry--seems nothing more than run-of-the-mill writer's block. Even more killing is how Shalwitz undercuts Litman's statements with his body language. Litman may talk the talk, but his stooped posture, folded hands, and cringing demeanor show he can't walk the walk. The Chinese Art of Placement was first produced by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company of Washington, D.C., a troupe that seems to specialize in this kind of hilariously self-deluded egotist: Woolly Mammoth cofounder Nicky Silver also writes plays packed with reality-denying fools. This staging is part of "New Play 2000," a festival presented by Prop Theatre Group and the National New Plays Network. Storefront Theater, Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, 66 E. Randolph, Chicago, 773-486-7767. Opens Thursday, July 13, 8 PM. Through July 23: Friday-Saturday, 8 PM; Sunday, 7 PM. $15 or "pay what you can." Note: Shalwitz leads a workshop on Wednesday, July 19, at 11 AM at Free Street Programs, Pulaski Park, 1419 W. Blackhawk, Chicago. Free, but preregistration is required; call 773-486-7767 for more information. --Jack Helbig

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