By: Tony Fitzpatrick
Directed by: Ann Filmer
At Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre
Hop Aboard This Train for an Unforgettable Ride.
Storytelling is a lost art in this day and age. Prior to written language it was the only means of communication, but as communication becomes more and more simple, we have forgotten the power of words. This Train not only utilizes the power of spoken language, but the power of song, art, and even “hobo language.” A combination of storytelling, multimedia, song; This Train is a rare piece of theatre that is not to be missed.
I initially felt as though there was supposed to be a plotline because of the way in which it transitioned from the video collage to the music to the scene between Mr. Fitzpatrick and the only other speaking actor in the show (Stan Klein), but I quickly realized this show is about stories. These stories are told in a humorous and touching manner by writer/actor Tony Fitzpatrick, using language that is poetic and vibrant imagery that makes the audience feel like they have been transported into these situations. There are few great storytellers in this day and age, and Mr. Fitzpatrick has an undeniable gift to engage an audience, especially for the two hour duration of the show during which he does most of the speaking. His language is beautifully supplemented by the folk music of guitarist John Rice and vocalist Kat Eggleston, whose musicianship is stellar. This gives the whole piece of a feel of being around the campfire; trading stories, singing songs, and learning a little bit more about one another.
What elevates this piece above simple storytelling is the content of the stories, which hold great cultural and social relevance (especially to the city of Chicago). I have seen a few shows that explored the theme of gentrification, but where this performance hits home is the personal connection Mr. Fitzpatrick has to the city. When speaking about the Wicker Park neighborhood, where Mr. Fitzpatrick runs his studio (and is on projection in the background during office scenes), he laments that the area used to be a “perfectly good bad neighborhood.” He adds layers on to this by speaking about his Ukrainian landlady, the numerous bums he assists, and his visit to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It begs the audience to ponder the question, “What is home?” It reveals how home means something different to everyone, and with a little bit of listening, understanding, and sarcasm, perhaps we can find this place together. What else is exciting is that I’m sure my reaction to this piece is different from every other person in the audience. The ones I have spoken about were the ones that hit closest to home. I did not catch some of the older references in terms of cinema and people, but some of the older audience members cheered with excitement at the mention of these older references.
Director Ann Filmer has perfectly orchestrated the piece, finding balance between the language, the music, and the visual landscape. One of the more subtle aspects of the production is Hobo Ghost (Buzz Kilman) because he never speaks, plays harmonica on occasion, and sits still in various areas of the stage. Hobo Ghost unobtrusively adds so much to the stage picture and provides an ethereal presence that to me symbolized the spirit of someone in search of a place in this world. Video Artist Kristin Reeves has fused together the poetry and art of Mr. Fitzpatrick (Yes, Mr. Fitzpatrick is also a highly accomplished artist) in beautifully cut sequences. The manner in which she has put together these videos perfectly coincides with the visual and verbal style of Mr. Fitzpatrick without copying it. These are among the most visually striking pieces of multimedia used in performance I have ever seen. The tech elements elevate the language and create a perfect atmosphere for the piece.
There is so much to like about this production, especially since there are so few shows like it. Even though Mr. Fitzpatrick does much of the speaking, it never feels like a one-man show. After spending an evening at the theatre with Mr. Fitzpatrick you may want to speak to him in person once the show is done. To find a piece of theatre that is engaging, relatable, entertaining, musical, poetic, humorous, and heartwarming all at the same time is a rarity. Do not miss this show, especially if you grew up in Chicago. You will walk away entertained, enlightened, and inspired.
Date of Review: 7/16/2010
For full show information, check out the This Train page at TheatreInChicago.
At Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets $22. Thursdays-Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 5:00 PM and 8:30 PM, and Sundays at 7:00 PM. For Tickets call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org. Running time is approximately 95 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Through August 1, 2010.