Everyone has heard about the possible dangers from someone yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. I can tell you firsthand that's a warning that just might be overstated, at least where the Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Stanislaw Witkiewicz's The Crazy Locomotive is concerned.
The 1923 play, which attacks commercialism, progress for the sake of progress, and a host of similar targets, takes place almost entirely on a massive train hurtling through space, taking most of humanity along with it. As Nicholas Slobok (Leopold Lowe), at the urging of his superior Siegfried Tenser (Alfred Preisser) keeps adding more and more coal to the fires, the speed of the train quickly moves out of their control, leaving their fates - and the passengers' - highly uncertain. Slobok and Tenser's struggle over the train also mirrors their conflict over the affections of a young woman, Julia (Erica Ball), who recklessly stokes their flames.
The production is keenly directed by Christopher McElroen, who uses Anne Lommel's set and Colin D. Young's lights as almost extensions of his own hands. Reality seems to exist only within the painstakingly detailed locomotive, while the passenger car is rendered in less realistic strokes. The strobe lighting effects gather in intensity as the train's speed and everyone's danger increases, and the thumping sound of the train - which adds a great deal of atmosphere, but occasionally obscures dialogue - is Stefan Jacobs's excitingly rhythmic creation.
If the performers are occasionally fighting an uphill battle to be noticed over the massive production (which is appropriate given the subject matter), they generally do a fine job, with Lowe and Preisser by turns villainous and heroic. Ball is sometimes over-ditzy, but mostly believable as a woman two men would risk all of humanity for.
Yet all of these elements combine to make a theatrical experience that so gripped its audience at the performance I saw, even when a crew member did yell a warning of a fire in the theatre about ten minutes before the end of the play, the audience was reluctant to leave their seats. Even as smoke filled the theater, the actors' intensely-focused performances and the enveloping nature of the production itself made it seem as if it had all been planned.
Slow to be convinced, many in the audience even applauded during this, for never once was the uncompromising world of the play breached. Luckily, no one was physically harmed and the flames were quickly extinguished, but none in the audience could leave unaffected. McElroen and company are to be commended for assembling a production of The Crazy Locomotive so atmospheric and enrapturing that even the audience doesn't want to leave.
Classical Theatre of Harlem