An absolutely riveting must-see piece of theater
|Lookingglass Theatre i/a/w Dark Harbor Stories presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
It’s been over a century since Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” the seminal, muckraking expose of working conditions in Chicago’s stockyards. The gruesome details of Sinclair’s true-to-life novel were as heartbreaking as they were shocking: He wrote about conditions so dangerous, workers sometimes were ground into sausage. He detailed the sub-living wages that kept the work force on the edge of starvation. And Sinclair showed that no matter how hard you worked, you’d never get ahead.
Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring is a “Jungle” for the 21st century. It’s not as sweeping as Sinclair’s classic, but it’s every bit as disturbing and urgent.
In his portrait of a four member “hygiene crew” laboring in basement cave of a factory, Zeldin offers a brutal exploration of a largely invisible underclass. These people aren’t at the bottom of the ladder of success, they’re beneath it, trapped where the bottom rung isn’t even visible, let alone reachable.
Both the director and the playwright, Zeldin’s Lookingglass production is a riveting piece of theater. For those who haven’t worked the in the economic underbelly of unskilled, temp jobs, Beyond Caring will come as a shock. The production has the feel of a living nightmare, a sunken place where the doomed are left to scream unheard as they’re trampled into nothingness.
There’s very little dialogue or plot in Beyond Caring. It’s not needed. The production is 90 minutes of can’t-look-away theater, with characters whose near-wordlessness doesn’t diminish their depth.
The cleaning crew supervisor Ian (Keith D. Gallagher) processes the women as if they were replaceable parts in a machine rather than humans. And in this world, that’s exactly what they are. There’s no humanity to the brief interviews, and no dignity. Safety isn’t a priority. It isn’t even a concern. In one almost unbearably tense scene, Ian takes about 30 seconds to show the women how to run a car-sized electronic floor cleaner. It’s a piece of equipment that could be lethal if improperly operated. When Ebony loses control of the massive machine, Ian berates her for being stupid. Then he leaves the three, telling them they’ll receive a text if he needs them to come in.
They’ll be working the 10 pm to 2 a.m. shift, scrubbing concrete floors, crusted walls and toilets. They can’t count on a steady paycheck (“Ask your agency” Ian says when money isn’t forthcoming) or steady hours.
As we watch the crew slog through the physically exhausting, spiritually crushing work of cleaning up scummy drains, vomit, and animal entrails, Zeldin gradually reveals the hardships Ebony, Tracy and their co-worker Phil (Edwin Lee Gibson) are facing. One is homeless, and dealing with profound food insecurity. One has a child she can’t see and is desperately trying to help. One has crippling arthritis, a disability that the law says must be accommodated. The factory basement is lawless.
There’s a momentary flash of happiness when Ian announces he has good news for the crew. Maybe they’ll get a raise. Maybe he’ll tell them their schedule a few days instead of a few hours before they’re to come in. But no – Ian’s good news is that in addition to their 10 – 2 shift, they’ll all be working from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. as well. Plus, Ian tells them, there’s a holiday party coming up. “Just come in a few hours before your shift starts. And everyone bring food,” he says.
Zeldin’s cast illuminates the rage, frustration and the tragedy of the workers with the unforgiving harshness of the fluorescent lights on the factory floor. The conversations among the workers is brusque – the longest sentences come as Phil reluctantly reads aloud from a Dick Francis novel during break. But in their taciturn economy and their silence, the bodies and the expressions of Brooks, Mateo, Gibson and Blackmore scream volumes.
Mateo’s Sonia barely speaks five words of broken English, yet you’ll be empathizing with her on many, many levels before Beyond Caring hits the halfway mark. There’s one scene in particular that shows just how keenly she wants to succeed. It comes after Ian tells her he wants workers who are “fun.” Sonia should be more”lively” he tells the hungry, exhausted woman. As he walks off, she breaks into a jig, calling after Ian to look while she dances “lively.” It’s a wince-inducing moment that vividly illustrates the humiliating lengths desperate people are forced to go. If Sonia has to literally grin and shuffle for her food, she will. Even more disturbing than the scene was the reaction it got opening night: The audience laughed.
As Tracy, Brooks turns in one of the best performances of her long career at Lookingglass. Watch for the scene when the music roars up and the flashing lights turn the stage into a surreal, pulsing techno-hell. Without saying a word, Brooks unleashes the rage of a lifetime. It’s a scene of furious intensity and it speaks for anyone who has ever been chronically overlooked or taken advantage of.
Blackmore’s Ebony-Grace is also memorable as a sweet, somewhat shy young woman who just wants to work and maybe connect just a little bit with the people around her. She’s got a monologue in the final third of the drama that has the power to make you weep.
As Phil, Gibson crucially shows that compassion and intelligence can survive even in the most unbearable circumstances. In Phil and Ebony, Zeldin shows that happiness can’t be wholly snuffed out.
It’s worth noting that Ian is the only white person on stage, and that makes Beyond Caring a play about race as well as class. Ian is neither smarter nor more capable than his employees – he’s just lighter. When he natters on about how he’s “colorblind” and doesn’t see race, you’ll want to throttle him.
Gallagher doesn’t make Ian intentionally cruel, but when the end result is cruelty, intentions don’t much matter. Ian is arrogant and ignorant, and everyone around him pays for those flaws. He’s an uneducated, bitter version of a Lincoln Park Chad and you will want to feed him to the meat grinder before the play is out.
Daniel Ostling’s set and lighting design is a grim masterpiece of cinderblocks and battered, colorless walls. It’s a factory with the color palette of a prison. Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design and original music is stunningly effective, especially in the final few minutes when the entire world become bathed in blood, filthy water, and harsh chemicals. Grigg’s work varies from ear-piercing to so subtle it flitters on the edge of inaudibility. The sound is almost a character in its own right, and it pumps up the emotions in a way that’s unforgettable.
Whoever designed the factory machinery (Amanda Herrmann did props, Eleanor Richards is the technical director) has clearly spent time in a meat-processing plant. The bloodied, filthy equipment has the look of medieval torture devices, or monstrous maws just waiting to snap shut around anyone who gets too close.
In all, Beyond Caring is a heart-pounding production. I’d say it’s a must see for anyone lucky enough to have avoided working an unskilled, minimum wage (or less) job, but that’s not accurate. It’s a must see. Period.
Beyond Caring continues through May 7th at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan (map), with performances Wednesdays 7:30pm, Thursdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2pm & 7:30pm. Tickets are $40-$75 ($20 student rush), and are available by phone (312-337-0665) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LookingglassTheatre.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
J. Nicole Brooks (Tracy), Caren Blackmore (Ebony-Grace), Keith D. Gallagher (Ian), Edwin Lee Gibson (Phil), Wendy Mateo (Sonia), Antonia Arcely, Anthony Irons, Shadana Patterson, J.J. Phillips (understudies).
behind the scenes
Alexander Zeldin (playwright and director), Daniel Ostling (set and lighting design), Mara Blumenfeld (costume design), Josh Anio Grigg (sound designer, composer), Amanda Herrmann (props), Tess Golden (stage manager), Sarah Burnham (production manager), Eleanor Richards (technical director), Tracy Walsh (intimacy choreographer), Matthew Moynihan (asst. director), Sam Moryoussef (asst. technical director), Mary Hungerford (asst. stage manager), Steve Sorenson (associate lighting design), Melissa Perkins (asst. costume design), Benjamin Zeman (asst. sound design), Lydia Hanchett (asst. properties design), Isaac Schoepp (master carpenter), Nic Belanger, Brian Browne, Elyse Estes, Victoria Fox, Ian Olsen, Jacob Puralewski, Adena Rice (carpenters), Sarah Lewis (scenic charge), John Kelly (asst. master electrician), Bryan Back, Arianna Brown, Kendall Cole, Jack Horwitch, Neal Javenkoski, Andrew Kauff, Austin Kopsa, Shawn Kronk, Aaron Lorenz, Bill McGhee, Eric Vigo, Carley Walker, Aaron Weissman, Jonah White (electricians), Mieka van der Ploeg (costume shop manager), Stephanie Cluggish (costume shop assistant), Robert Kuhn (shopper), Madeleine Low, Kara B. Tesch (stitchers), Samantha Umstead, Coral Gable, Penny Lane Studios (makeup and wigs), Jessica Rodriguez (costume crafts), Beth Uber (draper), Brontë DeShong, Shannon Golden, Chris Neville (properties artisans), Ryan Plunkett, Jake Wiener (deck crew), Amber Collins (wardrobe supervisor), Mel Motz (wardrobe assistant), Sarah Muller (stage manager intern), Philip R. Smith (casting, producing director), Raymond Fox (casting), Community Programming Jasmin Cardenas (community programming liaison and co-designer), Dark Harbor Stories (co-producer), The Yard Theatre (originating theater), Andrew White (connectivity and engagement director), Michele V. Anderson (general manager), Heidi Stillman (artistic director), Rachel E. Kraft (executive director), Liz Lauren (photos)