Celebrity Row

by Blythe Landry

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 28, 2008

Celebrity Row

Where does American Theater Company find these people?

The actors, writers, directors that come out for ATC productions seem to be of some part of elitist cult of their kind -- almost as though the company has sold their souls to some higher being to always get the best of the best of the best.

These people are incredible.

In going to see ATC's collaboration with writer Itamar Moses and director David Cromer, Celebrity Row, which examines the political and social underpinnings of America's criminal justice system and our inability to "hold captive or tame," if you will, the very criminals we seem to create, it seemed impossible to even equal the magnificence of their first production of the season, "The People's Temple."

But they did. They absolutely did. Even with none of the same actors from the first production this season, the acting, direction and production of "Celebrity Row" is simply brilliant.

That being said, and dismally so, the audience on the company's first Saturday performance was half-full? What a tremendous loss for the Chicago theater goers who may be a little too tepid or in-search of escape to stomach some of the gruesome and uncomfortable moments that this company's productions seek to create.

In addition to the play's central theme that is cited above, the show focuses on a real-time in the 90s when Latin Kings leader Luis Felipe (Joe Minoso), WTC Bomber Ramzi Yousef (Usman Ally), Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (Larry Neumann, Jr.), and Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh (Christopher McLinden) were housed on conjoining cells at Colorado's Supermax prison. It also examines a leftist lawyer (Kelli Simpkins) who seeks to challenge the Supermax's "unconstitutional conditions" of the prison and her eventual loss of belief in her own cause as she is "duped," by the prisoners she seeks to aid and challenged by the administrators of the prison who, eventually, have to save her life.

In other words, "Celebrity Row" leaves the audience both contemplating the hole that the American government has created for itself (and its citizens) in not being able to manage a system which causes rage and revolutionary uprisings by those who are either duped or "used," by the system. The criminals in this production are attempting to use the very system that trained many of them to kill in the first place.

"Celebrity Row" is definitely not a "feel good," weekend escape, so much to the point that it takes commitment and energy.

That being said, what is real is real, and this type of art seeks to create conversation, and, potentially, debate and change in a way that may be too challenging for the average theater goer. It also challenges its actors (Christopher McLinden literally took a sigh of relief after his curtain call, as though he had exhausted his resources for the evening). And this is understandable.

ATC does a tremendous job of utilizing their talent much like a person who lives in a 300 square foot studio has to maximize their space. Citing the above actors for their primary roles in the production discounts the fact that every one of them plays opposing characters (for instance the very people who are monitoring them as prisoners) in a matter of seconds. This usage of the actors not only draws interesting parallels to the script, but it also just leaves the audience in repeated awe at the bloody talent in the room.

Every last one of these actors is brilliant, as was already stated, but it must be noted that the audience will leave the production both terrified and, possibly sleepless with the eerie similarity and tortured-ness that Larry Neumann, Jr. brings to the role of Ted Kaczynski.

A must see for people who want to be challenged and rewarded for accepting the journey.

Runs through Nov. 16th

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