Stages

Review: Saul Bellow Would Approve of Court Theatre’s Exhilarating Production of The Adventures of Augie March

If you believe in heaven or hell, then perhaps I can persuade you that Saul Bellow is viewing the current events at Court Theatre with approval. David Auburn’s adaptation of Bellow’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Augie March, is a surprisingly true and fresh retelling of the story of Augie’s life.

I say true, although it doesn’t need to be. An adaptation of a previous work is a new work of art and should not be expected to mirror exactly the events of the original. (See Nambi Kelley’s version of Native Son at Court Theatre in 2014 as an example of a different way to retell a classic.) Court’s world premiere production of The Adventures of Augie March, beautifully directed by Charles Newell, is set in mid-century and reflects Augie’s life as a Depression-era kid. The play begins and ends with Augie (Patrick Mulvey) shipwrecked as a member of the Merchant Marine in World War II. His fellow survivor is a ship’s carpenter named Basteshaw (John Judd).

Aurora Real de Asua, John Judd, BrittneyLove Smith, Patrick Mulvey. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The real story starts with his Chicago childhood, unspooling incidents at the March home, where the family boarder, known as Grandma Lausch (Marilyn Dodds Frank), rules the household—made up of Augie, his two brothers and his blind mom (Chaon Cross). Father March is gone and the family barely scrapes by financially. Oldest brother Simon (Luigi Sottile) is handsome and ambitious; his goal is to marry a rich girl and get his own business going. Youngest brother Georgie (Travis Turner) is mentally disabled.

Augie’s adventures are told in a series of slightly connected scenes in three acts. The story is often described as a picaresque novel—it follows the episodic journey of a roguish but appealing character who lives by his wits, without particular goals or direction. And Augie is described by other characters as “directionless” and lacking ambition. He’s interested in education but always lets himself be drawn into other activities, sometimes slightly shady. By working as an aide to a disabled Chicago businessman (Einhorn, played by John Judd), he has access to Einhorn’s set of Harvard Classics and dives in to read all of them. He also falls in love with a series of women. One of them, Thea (Chaon Cross), persuades him to go to Mexico with her to train an eagle to hunt lizards. (She also wants to get a cheap divorce.) And there’s Stella (Abby Pierce), who he ultimately marries.

Chaon Cross as Thea and Patrick Mulvey as Augie. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Saul Bellow’s famous opening is a thread that runs throughout the play.

“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus….”

Bellow’s opening (and Augie’s life as well as Bellow’s) reflects the American immigrant experience. They both are children of Eastern European Jewish immigrant families, living on Chicago’s west side. (Bellow grew up in Humboldt Park, which was then a Russian Jewish neighborhood.) Augie may be directionless, but he is a searcher. In his picaresque adventures, he’s looking for wisdom, love and excitement.

And the production ends with Bellow’s closing speech for Augie.

“Look at me, going everywhere. I am a sort of a Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which don’t prove there was no America.”

All of Chicago is encompassed in this great American story. Auburn takes care to use references to the many Chicago locations where Augie lives, works and engages in minor theft. Auburn also keeps the strong Chicago flavor of Bellow’s dialect and the poetry of his language.

Several of the characters are spotlighted throughout the play to speak one of the monologues that Auburn draws from Bellow’s text-heavy novel. The most memorable are by Chaon Cross and Travis Turner. After performing Georgie mutely, Turner suddenly stands and speaks eloquently, like Lucky in Waiting for Godot.

Patrick Mulvey is so right as Augie that one could almost believe he was created to play this part. (He’s played many other roles in Chicago theaters.) Mulvey is on stage for virtually the entire 3.5 hour play. John Judd as always inhabits both of his characters perfectly, as does Chaon Cross, who plays the blind mom, the erratic and complex Thea and other roles. BrittneyLove Smith will knock your socks off with her rich comic turns as Dingbat and other characters. Travis Turner plays Georgie fully and gracefully, to the last scene where he’s become a shoemaker (heels and soles) in a special needs home. It’s an all-round accomplished cast, including also Sebastian Arboleda, Kai Ealy, Neil Friedman, Aurora Real de Asua and Stef Tovar—all playing many characters. There’s not a weak link In that chain. And we should mention Caligula, the large eagle puppet created by Lizi Breit of Manual Cinema.

John Culbert’s scenic and lighting design are dramatic backdrops for the play. They’re minimalist, focused on a blue-gray backdrop and simple props and furniture moved about the stage. A scrim is used to screen shadow puppet scenes, utilizing puppets designed by Manual Cinema designers.

The blue-gray color palette continues in Sally Dolembo’s costume design. Actors wear basically the same clothing throughout, occasionally adding a hat or jacket. Augie wears the same rumpled white shirt and jeans wherever he is. And with a few brief exceptions, everyone is barefoot. I speculated on the significance of shoelessness when reviewing Ivo van Hove’s A View From the Bridge in 2017. “One can conjecture about the meaning of bare feet. Do they suggest the immigrant setting foot on new land? On the vulnerability of one while barefoot? On the readiness for a fight in a wrestling ring? I could make an argument for any one of those.” And I could make the same arguments here. (I saw another Van Hove play recently and the actors all wore shoes, so it’s not a regular Van Hove shtick.)

I have one serious quibble with Newell’s otherwise thoughtful direction. The 3.5 hour production has two intermissions. I think one intermission is sufficient; the first act could be lengthened. I’ve recently seen two plays of the same length on Broadway  (KingLear and The Ferryman); both had two-hour first acts and only one intermission.

Saul Bellow was born in Canada in 1915 after his parents emigrated from their native Russia. They moved to Chicago in 1924 and Bellow lived here for much of his life. He taught at the U of C for 30 years. The Adventures of Augie March was awarded the National Book Award in 1954 and is often listed among the greatest American novels. Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. He died in 2005 in Massachusetts.

The Adventures of Augie March at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., has been extended; you can see it through June 23. Buy tickets for $50-$74 for performances Wednesday-Sunday–eight shows a week.

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