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Chicago by John Olson

Clay
A One Man Hip-Hop Musical
A Co-production of About Face Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre

Also see John's review of Fat Pig

Clay
Matt Sax
A person could be forgiven a little skepticism in approaching an original one-person musical, written and performed by a twenty-ish recent college grad, couldn't they? In this case the artist in question, Matt Sax, who recently completed his degree at Northwestern University is no ordinary grad, even by NU's standards (he's also studied at Julliard, the Stella Adler Studio and the Lee Strasberg Institute) and such a person would be making a mistake to miss this performance. A knowledge of or attraction to hip-hop is not a prerequisite for enjoying this engaging piece and performance as Sax fills Clay with an assortment of characters and monologues as well as the hip-hop numbers (written by Sax, Johnny Williams and Jon Schmidt), which are impressive on a musical as well as poetic level.

Clay the character is a hip-hop artist who was drawn to the genre at age 16 as an escape from a broken home. A club owner, Sir John, takes him in and helps him develop the ability to write and perform his own material. The piece is told in flashback, beginning with Clay's arrival at a big concert date with blood covering his face. We're taken through his life from the breakup of his parents' marriage when he was a young kid named Clifford (Clay is his stage name) through the troubles of his disturbed mother, his strained relationship with his narcissistically clueless father, and his unusual bonding with his stepmother.

Sax and director/collaborator Eric Rosen show restraint in shaping the characters. Sax wisely eschews imitating female voices for the mom and step mom, and though he's somewhat broad in his little boy voice and caricature for his dad, he's pretty sensitive in his portrayal of the older and physically deformed Sir John. Sax moves seamlessly between characters, and from spoken word to song, to put together a varied 75-minute piece. He has the hip-hop moves down, to be sure, but his portrayal of five major characters makes this a satisfying dramatic piece and a surprisingly visually rich one as well. The scenic design of Megan Raham, using only dual sets of curtains on stage, includes murals on the two side walls to create an urban environment. The lighting design of Christopher Ash suggests dark, menacing places, whether in Clifford's mind or in the mean streets of the hip-hop world. Raham's costume design uses the type of hooded sweatshirt so closely identified with rap singer Eminem to great effect: it sometimes cloaks Sir John to hide his misshapen jaw and at other times reveals a vulnerable Clifford.

Sax originally performed the piece in 2004 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, when he was a sophomore at Northwestern, and this production is its American premiere. The maturity of his writing and the versatility of his performance make clear that Mr. Sax is a talent to watch.

Clay is also the first production to be mounted in Lookingglass's new Chase Studio Theater, a 50-seat black box one story above the company's main stage in the historic Water Tower Water Works. It's a nice addition to the growing Theatre District II (my term), which also includes the Drury Lane Water Tower at the north end of Michigan Avenue. It can't hurt the commercial fortunes of productions like Clay to be in the same building as one of the League of Chicago Theaters half-price Hot Tix booths, either.

Clay will be performed at the Lookingglass Chase Studio Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Avenue, through November 19, 2006. For ticket information, call the Lookingglass Theater Box Office at 312-337-0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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