I’ve heard marvelous things about The House Theatre of Chicago, and the stunning work they do. So, I was really looking forward to their 2009-2010 season’s kick-off production, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds.
Unfortunately, for me, this show really misses the mark. Billed as a “phantasmic journey into the mind of a fictional country music legend,” and “what an episode of Howdy Doody might look like if directed by David Lynch,” it’s a tonally unfocused disappointment.
Press materials note that the show was workshopped at Victory Gardens, but deemed too impossible to stage due to the bizarre visual effects, including a talking horse and tumbleweed and the lead character slowly transforming into a skeleton. The innovative House Theatre took on the challenging script and makes the staging work, to a degree. The scenic design team should be top-billed in this production’s credits, as their work here is really amazing. However, the visual effects aren’t the problem — anything can be done with a little stagecraft magic supported by audience imagination. The issue here is the story, which is riddled with cliches, unclarity and a lack of narrative drive and focus.
Rock journalist Mark Guarino wrote the play, which follows the rise and downfall of country music legend Lofty Deeds — “the last cowboy,” we’re told. Framed as a fever-dreamish flashback, Lofty revisits his climb to fame and the eventual demise of country music as it’s consumed by capitalism, with him being last of the unfortunate victims.
Guarino loosely inserts tunes by recording artist Jon Langford (The Mekons, The Waco Brothers) into the action, which is a bright spot. However, the music only seems fully integrated in the underdeveloped plot a few times, and, strangely, is used very little for a show that celebrates country music and the wild west. For example, the second act, which screams for a big, fat opening number, chooses to kick things off with Lofty walking onstage and showing off his flashy new duds. Really? You have a fantastic band right behind you, and you start things off with a costume reveal, followed by an awkward monologue?
Furthermore, as Lofty Deeds, Nathan Allen is simply miscast. Far too young and contemporary to lend any credibility as “the last cowboy,” it’s difficult to empathize with this Lofty. In addition, any charisma he has vanishes the moment he starts playing guitar and singing (he needs to stop bouncing up and down and squinting his eyes when he launches into song — there’s no connection).
The rest of the cast is fine, particularly Corri Feuerstein as the smoky-voiced Tumbleweed (I wanted to hear more of her singing). Director Tommy Rapley does all he can in making this muddled show work; however, to really make it sing it needs some serious streamlining. Why do we care about Lofty? What made him such a dynamic performer? Guarino spends too much time telling us how wonderful Lofty is, without showing us. A better framing device is needed — as my theatre companion suggested, something along the lines of a midnight radio DJ who decides to revisit the tunes of lost country legend Lofty Deeds. Something.
As it’s currently presented, the fame of Lofty Deeds is still a cloudy mystery.
“All the Fame of Lofty Deeds,” presented by The House Theatre of Chicago, plays through December 20 at the Chopin Theatre, located at 1543 West Division. For more information, go here.