To Catch a Fish re-creates a government operation gone terribly wrong | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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To Catch a Fish re-creates a government operation gone terribly wrong

Brett Neveu's play is not so much about the con, but the effect of the con.

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As far as shitty tenants go, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has nothing on the men and women of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In 2012, as part of an unregistered sting dubbed Operation Fearless, agents rented a storefront in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood-disguised as a clothing and housewares outlet-in order to ensnare low-level criminals by luring them into a gun buyback scheme. The operation was a model of ineptitude: guns were stolen, wrongful arrests were made, and Chauncey Wright, a mentally handicapped man who worked for the agents and sold them guns and drugs, ended up serving six months of house arrest and four years of probation. The agents also left in their wake $15,000 in damages and unpaid rent and utility bills.

Brett Neveu's world-premiere two-act drama, presented as the first product of TimeLine's Playwrights Collective, is inspired by those events as reported by Raquel Rutledge and John Diedrich in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Though TimeLine Theatre has a long history of successfully transforming seemingly unstageable stories of bureaucracy and institutional malfeasance into ground-level human dramas, Neveu and director Ron OJ Parson focus almost entirely on the day-to-day interactions of their Wright surrogate (Geno Walker) and his guardian/grandmother (Linda Bright Clay), cousin (Al'Jaleel McGhee), and girlfriend (Tiffany Addison).

Foregrounding the ripples in the lives of low-income people of color who otherwise get buried in stories about government corruption makes sense; as Neveu puts it in a program interview, "It has to be about the effect of the con, not the con itself." Still, I wonder how To Catch a Fish would play without TimeLine's immaculately detailed lobby display that fills in seemingly critical contextual blanks, particularly the systems at play that incentivized agents to behave like corporate sales bros goosing their numbers by any means necessary.   v

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