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Chicago by John Olson

Enron
TimeLine Theatre Company

Also see John's reviews of Bachelorette, Time Stands Still and The Houdini Box

Enron
Bret Tuomi
Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO of the real-life Enron Corporation that is the subject of this history play, is frequently quoted in the play as saying of Enron, "We're changing the way business is done!" The Broadway run of Enron was done-in two years ago the old-fashioned way—by mixed reviews, including a pan from The New York Times' Ben Brantley, and it closed after just 15 regular performances. In their program notes, TimeLine Theatre acknowledges the risks of producing a Broadway flop, but happily has marched on with Enron anyway. Their mission calls for plays that educate and enlighten as well as entertain, and Enron does both. Though entertaining in its use of show business analogies to explain complex financial accounting concepts, it's effective education as it seeks to explain how Enron's shady accounting practices led the company to become a Wall Street darling for years before crashing into bankruptcy in 2001. The lessons are still valuable as we ponder a struggling economy that many believe is better at making money than making things and wonder how that can be.

British playwright Lucy Prebble had the idea to use theatrical devices—symbolic characters like dinosaurs representing shadow companies—to explain these abstract concepts. These devices co-exist alongside a more traditional play within: the tragic story of CEO Skilling, who rose from titan of industry to an orange jumpsuited prison inmate. How does someone like Skilling sleep at night when risking the fortunes of so many people? Well, he doesn't, as Prebble's script points out, but he maintains an unshakable belief that any business activity that is legal—meaning any that he believes is legal or can get an attorney to say is legal—is acceptable and, I guess, moral and ethical enough. Skilling is shown to be driven in establishing his innovative business practices that are built not around making products but by manipulating and capitalizing on changes in demand for products. When his schemes start to fall around him, he's driven simply to save his own skin and still seems to believe he's done nothing wrong.

To stage Enron, TimeLine brought in Chicago's Rachel Rockwell, a director known (and praised) mainly for her work as director and choreographer of musicals, and she stages Prebble's frequently symbolic, fantastic script with much choreographed movement. The piece is not a musical, though it does have some songs, but the ensemble moves as one, as a musical's chorus might, creating pictures (like a trading floor or an office party) and moving in ways that are impressionistic rather than literal. In Enron, real people and institutions are portrayed in figurative ways with help from Elizabeth Flauto's costumes: the Arthur Andersen CPAs are a ventriloquist and dummy, Enron's attorneys are the blind Lady Justice, and most hilariously, the Lehman Brothers as seen as a pair of Siamese twins sharing one oversized suit.

The onstage mixture of realism and fantasy is accompanied by extensive projections designed by Mike Tutaj. As if to acknowledge how much of our information we receive on an electronic screens, the four monitors in each of the corners on the in-the-round stage provide historical news video, stock prices and even a health-club treadmill monitor. Kevin Depinet's scenery is effectively spare—mostly sleek office furniture that provides realism when needed.

Rockwell's cast create vivid characters, even within the fanciful, almost vaudevillian tone she establishes. As Skilling, Bret Tuomi presents an amazingly original central character: initially nerdy and, though he has much chutzpah, not suggesting someone who would have the nerve to take the risks he took. He grows into someone more physically attractive and confident—one who could project the presence required of a CEO. As his schemes start to crumble he ultimately becomes desperate and fearful. His Chief Financial Officer, Andrew Fastow, is played by Sean Fortunato as a weaselly toady—probably not seen as macho in a traditional sense, and who seeks and gains power through his wiles. TimeLine's marvelous character actor Terry Hamilton plays the Enron Board Chairman Kenneth Lay as a charming good 'ol Texan who probably knew more than he let on about the shenanigans. Amy Metheny makes a convincing executive as Skilling's business rival and one-time lover.

Though the piece seems about 10 minutes too long and has one or two false endings where you feel the play is over but it's not, it's still a stunning combination of various theatrical arts. We're reminded how theatre can educate, even on something as abstract as financial and accounting practices. It isn't enough to learn how a disaster like Enron can happen, though. We need to understand how people make the moral and ethical choices that cause a disaster to happen. Enron gives us a plausible if hypothetical look into the mind of the man responsible for that one.

Enron will play the TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago, through April 15, 2012. For tickets, visit www.timelinetheatre.com or call 773-281-8463.


Photo: Lara Goetsch

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-- John Olson



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