Frankie & Johnny

Tuesday, June 3, 1997
Section: Tempo
Column: Arts Watch, Theater Review
By Chris Jones, Special to the Tribune

Multitalented and iconoclastic performance artists are invariably attracted to the simplest of folk tales because their simple but pervasive narratives allow for maximum theatrical experimentation and manipulation.

Thus Redmoon Theater, which rehearses its annual big-scale production at the Steppenwolf Studio for over nine months, has this year chosen the simple “The Ballad of Frankie and Johnny,” in which a nice but vulnerable girl meets a slick guy who cheats on her with a temptress. Spurned, Frankie shoots Johnny dead.

That’s about the complexity of the plot here. But creators (and Redmoon co-artistic directors) Jim Lasko and Blair Thomas are not much concerned with the stuff of traditional scripts.

Thus “Frankie and Johnny” becomes a noir cabaret, an eye-popping and endlessly self-reflexive production filled with live actors, life-size and miniature puppets, magic tricks, exploding properties and a live band tooting original and experimental jazz (composed by Michael Zerang).

Skilled Redmoon performers use the techniques of vaudeville, circus, mime, cabaret, street performance and Bertolt Brecht. Evoking Toon town imagery, Thomas’ extraordinary set-on-wheels spins around, Cirque-like performers upbraid the front row of the audience and the (live) actor playing Johnny seduces an erotic puppet–this dark and sexual show is definitely not for children; there’s more than enough here to haunt adult dreams.

Much of the work on display is brilliantly imaginative, and superbly performed (Tria Smith’s aching Frankie is a stand-out, but all of the actors are compelling). Many images linger in the memory–Frankie hunched under a red umbrella, dead puppets feeling human pain, a fornicating wooden version of Johnny showing up in a magician’s bag of tricks.

But we’re also ultimately left wondering about the human relationships under all of the stylized and sometimes cold performances. There’s insufficient contrast here between Johnny’s relationship with two very different women.

Folk tales, after all, abide because of their universality; even the most complex and sophisticated performance troupes should never overwhelm simple, human truths.

“Frankie and Johnny”
When: Through July 6
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Studio, 1550 N. Halsted St.
Phone: 312-335-1650

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