Music by Nicholas Tonozzi
Score by Sam Allyn
Produced by Oracle Theatre, Chicago
Jungle a Potent Message for Today
Oracle has revived their hit The Jungle from last summer, and it’s easy to see why. This piece, directed and adapted by Matt Foss, demonstrates one brilliant theatrical innovation after another to tell the story of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking novel. Though condensed, the piece retains key scenes which depict the struggle of a Lithuanian immigrant family, while emphasizing their dehumanizing exploitation instead of a literal depiction of the slums and packing district. This is epic theatre at its finest, engaging our imaginations to present the corruption of a whole society.
Jurgis (Travis Delgado) decides to resettle in Chicago along with his elderly father, Antanas (Drew McCubbin) and his intended, Ona (Stephanie Polt). Just before departing, they are unexpectedly joined by Ona’s cousin Marija (DeChantel Kosmatka), who is on the run for hitting a farmer. Arriving without knowing a word of English or a place to stay, Jurgis’s only contact is the delicatessen owner Jakob (Andrew Rathgeber), who warns him things will be extremely difficult here. Industrial labor wears people out quickly, and the entanglements of the law will nickel and dime you to death if you don’t know all the tricks. But if Jurgis wants work, the most likely place to look is in the stockyards. The family is not afraid of honest labor.
Though Jurgis quickly gets taken on slaughtering cattle, the others have a rougher time. The boss, Connor (Thomas Wynne) demands a bribe to let a man as old as Antanas work, and sends him to the filthy, toxic fertilizer manufacturing room. After much insisting that they find something for her, Marija gets a job painting cans. Jurgis insists Ona not work because he thinks it his duty to take care of her. They attempt to purchase a house, but it turns out to be a rent-to-own scam. Their meager wages cannot possibly cover it, especially not after Jurgis is injured. Marija helps Ona get a job against Jurgis’s wishes, but Connor has more nefarious plans for her, and from there, things only get worse.
But what really makes this show worth watching is paper-based world building. Jesse Mooney-Bullock designed a cattle stamp, which the actors use to suggest hanging cows by the hind legs by slamming against butcher paper. With a slash of red paint and a sickening rip, they dispatch the animal (the paint is washable, but plastic covers are provided to the first row). Nicholas Tonozzi’s live music, performed by Sam Allyn and actor Zachary Baker-Salmon, mixes mournful Eastern European folk tunes with the blues. Baker-Salmon’s vocals capture the pain and irony of a work-song, in contrast to the multiple characters he plays, each with a different flavor of slime. Joan Pritchard’s proletarian costumes aid the actors who switch roles in completely remaking themselves, and are aided on one case by Mooney-Bullock’s chicken puppet. Jason Fassl’s lighting design combines with murals painted live by the actors to create a hazy atmosphere of filth so thick you can almost smell it.
The success of the stagecraft is due to the hard work of the ensemble, who also suit their performances to this non-realistic but emotionally relatable style of presentation. Delgado is obviously not Lithuanian, but his interpretation of the quiet giant who slowly learns to seize his destiny transcends demographic boundaries to represent a universal struggle. Kosmatka (who just finished Circle-Machine) is a fiery Marija, who is the most intelligent and adaptable of the family. She is the one most eager to learn English, and willing to do whatever it takes to survive. Polt’s Ona, though she gets little stage time, is as brave and self-sacrificing asset to her family as Jurgis, and Rathgeber is tragic as Jakob, the immigrant who briefly got ahead in the capitalist world and lost it trying to help his friends.
By focusing on the human elements instead of the environment, Foss’s The Jungle avoids the famous misfire of Sinclair’s, which resulted in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration but little immediate relief for workers. The novel is now widely taught in schools, which gives this show a built-in audience. And yet, how to handle that it is basically propaganda for a long dead movement? Foss has a character, Tamos (Rick Foresee), invite Jurgis into a union. It’s not a socialist party, but with the benefit of hindsight, we know that our hero may not have been as doomed as it seemed after the first red scare. The show’s ending is the best example of how Oracle’s adaptation removed The Jungle’s extraneous specificity to tell the story of a timeless struggle. It is a rallying cry that makes epic theatre, and The Jungle, relevant again.
Reviewed April 3, 2015
For more information, see The Jungle’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N Broadway, Chicago. To reserve seats, visit publicaccestheatre.org. Tickets are free. Plays on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays (except April 11) at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 7:00 pm through April 25. Running time is ninety-five minutes with no intermission.