With the election season finally heading into an actual election after months and months of primary contests, director J.W. Basilo and head writer Shelley Elaine Geiszler’s hybrid production put on by Chicago Slam Works, This Great Nation, Much Enduring, appearing at Stage 773, debuts at a time pregnant with possibility. The mix of spoken word, staged drama, monologue and prerecorded A/V pieces tells the story of the young, sincere and naive Senator Thomas Denton (Felix Mayes) and his hopeless quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. This quixotic quest (think of the hapless former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley) drives Denton to put it all on the line to eke out a respectable showing in his home county where most people don’t even know his name. Helping him along this path is Kim Caplan (Teagan Walsh-Davis) a cagey political operative who may not only be interested in cashing a paycheck.
However, this core narrative is only a percentage of what the audience experiences. A Greek chorus of ensemble characters (Lauren S. Deaton, Osiris Khepera, Kyla Norton and Dru Smith) routinely appear as a mostly poor, desperate, injured or neglected underclass to express their struggles in an uncaring America that seems to have waken up from its dream but neglected to tell everyone else. These characters pop up in a sort of confessional, monologing to the audience while a silent pre-taped performance plays on loops in the background, as if they were sitting down on the set of an unwatched edition of 60 Minutes. Spoken word sessions act as interludes between segments and are often built into the narrative as to not disrupt the production’s flow, more like commas than periods.
This Great Nation, Much Enduring is above all a satire. What makes a good satire is the care and concern at the core of what’s being poked at. Without that it’s simply mockery. Where this performance shines is in the monologues that can be taken as both performance and as something approaching a documentary. A rattled vet speaks about his experiences abroad, the loss of a friend, and the jarring return home to a country he scarcely remembers. A downtrodden striver lists a litany of indignities he’s experienced as a debt ridden, underemployed man. An Army wife recounts her loneliness and sexual frustrations, at one point ready to hop on the young boy bagging her groceries just to be touched, giving voice to something that is scarcely mentioned given the virginal stereotype of the soldier’s wife.
These touches make This Great Nation, Much Enduring. The material with Sen. Denton and his fixer Caplan has been seen before and the classic idealist politician meeting cold hard reality goes way back, especially in American arts (think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). As a sad sack, Sen. Denton mostly works, but one of the better jokes (his resemblance to President Barack Obama, though lacking in charisma and competence) could be better developed, as could a number of others. Indeed, the satire isn’t as biting as it could be. Still, given the current climate it’s hard to make any sort of political satire that feels new or inspiring. Perhaps the most promising is the Miss Cleo wannabe masquerading as a know-it-all pollster that Caplan introduces to Sen. Denton.
Regardless, This Great Nation, Much Enduring works best when it focuses on the struggles of the small. Sen. Denton seems like a narrative vehicle, an obligatory device used only to enter this world. Despite the confident performance, his story feel inconsequential next to the sufferings of the actual voters on whom he depends. In this way, the production is well timed. Look at these struggles and vote with your heart on what’s to be done.
This Great Nation is performed Friday nights at 8:15pm through June 10 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are $20. For tickets and information click here or call 773-327-5252.