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Chicago by John Olson

Mistakes Were Made
A Red Orchid Theatre

Mistakes Were Made
Michael Shannon
The 2009-2010 Chicago theatre season is off to a roaring start with Red Orchid's production of this new play by Craig Wright, a wickedly funny and intensely emotional marathon performed almost solely by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon. With the Chicago-originated A Steady Rain and Superior Donuts having just begun previews on Broadway, this play could be the next to make the move to New York. Shannon plays Felix Artifex, a veteran hack producer on a day when he is trying to nail down all the players for what he hopes will be his redemptive production. Alone on stage for most of an hour and 45 minutes nonstop, Shannon takes us through Felix's frustration, irritation, desperation and loneliness as he attempts to pull the project, and in fact his life, together. As funny and riveting as this work is, the tension is so palpable that you long for it to be resolved, even as you are engulfed in the performance and text.

Artifex, who's made a career of producing revivals featuring wildly inappropriate stunt casting like Suzanne Somers in Medea, is mounting his first original play, an epic about the French Revolution also entitled Mistakes Were Made. It's a script by a young Midwestern writer calling for a cast of 50 and a multitude of expensive period costumes. To fund this, he needs a star to sell tickets, and as the action opens on Tom Burch's realistic set depicting Artifex's shabby little office, Artifex is trying to seal a deal with a big movie actor to lead the cast. The star wants rewrites, though, and after painfully extracting exactly what the actor is looking for, Artifex has to convince his idealistic playwright to do the revisions. On top of that, Artifex has gotten into a financially risky and dangerous scheme somewhere in the war-torn Middle East (presumably Iraq) in order to raise money. On this day, Artifex will either clear a road to achieving his highest goals or lose everything he has risked in that pursuit.

Over the course of the play, Artifex is juggling phone calls from the writer, the actor, agents, the theater owner, the director, costume designer, his ex-wife and even a Middle Eastern thug. The intercom barely stops buzzing as his apparently long-suffering assistant Esther (played mostly offstage dryly by Mierka Girten) valiantly manages the callers filling his eight telephone lines. Tension is abated for only a few moments when the phone is silent and Artifex confides in his goldfish Denise (a puppet designed and manipulated by Sam Deutsch).

Wright has created a brilliantly detailed character in Felix Artifex. Initially, Felix seems generally confident of pulling together the different agendas of his creative team and star. Though uneducated enough to be uncertain of who Robespierre was, he comes up with bon mots like predicting an associate's anger will cause his hemorrhoids to "pop and shoot like a rocket into space." When his rhetoric goes awry (as when the actor Johnny Bledsoe takes offense after Felix refers to him as a "scientist" of acting, for example), he quickly yet awkwardly changes course to reassure Johnny the remark was a compliment. As deals threaten to fall apart, Felix at times seems ready to crumble, yet always gets up like a punch-drunk boxer ready to endure another blow.

The thirty-five-year-old Shannon, directed by Dexter Bullard, convincingly plays Artifex as nearly twice the actor's real age. He's made up by Nan Zabriskie to look older, but his performance would be believable even without the makeup. Shannon uses a multitude of mannerisms to give him flesh. He fidgets with his glasses, readjusts his phone headset, furrows his brow and shakingly helps himself to some sort of prescription drug to calm his nerves. On the phone, ever shifting with the tides of his associates' egos, Felix frequently seems to be collecting his arguments and reassurances even in mid-sentence—and when he's uncertain, sometimes tossing off throwaway phrases just to finish the sentences, but quickly so the listener won't think too hard about their meaning.

Felix's assistant Esther is heard mostly from offstage mostly through the intercom, and Girten voices her with a perfect blend of loyalty and professionalism mixed with a hint of quite justifiable exasperation. In her brief moment on stage she delivers a short line which I won't reveal here, but which is the payoff of the piece, making it ultimately hopeful in spite of its cynical and satiric tone. As with Shannon and Felix, both writer and performer must be credited equally with creating a full character so economically. And though Shannon and Girten are the only performers on stage, one must also credit Wright with developing a fully realized cast of characters solely through Felix's side of his phone conversations with them. We get detailed impressions of the arrogant actor Johnny Bledsoe, the na´ve playwright Steven Nelson, Nelson's bitchy agent Helen, the British director, the theatre owner and the terrorist even though we never see or hear them.

As a satire of show business, Mistakes Were Made will be especially entertaining to those who are involved or just interested in the business, but it works on another level as well. It's a cautionary tale of losing one's way in the pursuit of what may initially have been noble objectives.

Clearly, the Motion Picture Academy members who gave Shannon a supporting actor nomination this year for his small role in Revolutionary Road over a crowded field of worthy contenders recognized that Shannon is an actor not to be ignored, but that performance was just a sliver of what he gives on stage here. Mistakes Were Made could be a breakthrough play for Wright, already a successful writer of TV dramas and Off-Broadway hits. Regardless of the future for this piece, Mistakes Were Made has set an exceptionally high bar for the hundreds of productions that will follow in this new Chicago theater season.

Mistakes Were Made will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 31st, at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., Chicago. Tickets and season subscriptions are available through the Box Office, by calling 312-943-8722 or online at www.aredorchidtheatre.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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