Chicago Theater Review: NICKEL HISTORY: THE NATION OF HEAT (Steppenwolf Garage)

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by Paul Kubicki on August 14, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN
PERFORMANCE ART AND DRAMA

Without ever denigrating the work of Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick, I have to say I never quite got part three of his trilogy of play/art-show/performance pieces, Nickel History: The Nation of Heat. The work is largely autobiographical, with Fitzpatrick and Stan Klein, Fitzpatrick’s fellow artist and longtime friend, contemplating their fathers’ sacrifices as they entered the military and how that shaped their own futures. The two previous pieces in Fitzpatrick’s trilogy, This Train and Stations Lost (neither of which I saw), were apparently similar in style, though not in content.

Paul Kubicki's Stage and Cinema review of NICKEL HISTORY at Steppenwolf Chicago

Primarily a visual artist, the most stunning element of this production are Fitzpatrick’s prints, which are projected onto a wall behind the stage throughout the piece. While he shows versatility in Nickel—his poetry is beautiful and his stories are poignant and pointed—Fitzpatrick’s multimedia work requires a bit more contemplation than the pacing of this larger piece gives us.  He and Klein are certainly charismatic, and this makes for a series of engaging, personal pieces set against Anna Fermin’s soulful all-American guitar and vocal accompaniment. Yet a performance cannot run on charisma alone. The beautifully written pieces might have been highly effective if not for Fitzpatrick’s and Klein’s somewhat awkward, at times fumbled delivery. While I exceptionally admire Fitzpatrick and Klein’s work (and their audacity), they’re clearly artists rather than performers.

Paul Kubicki's Stage and Cinema review of NICKEL HISTORY at Steppenwolf Chicago

What I don’t get is why this piece has been turned into performance art on display at Steppenwolf Garage. The show has common themes and a few common story threads, only some of which seem to tackle the play’s nostalgic military theme, but ultimately doesn’t have much in the way of dramatic arc, and never quite feels cohesive. This might work if it were a book of his prints and poems with the stories interspersed for background, or perhaps a gallery showing of his work, but doesn’t feel all that well suited for the stage. For those already familiar with the duo, this show’s unbridled intimacy should enrapture them—but others in the audience may feel totally out-of-the-loop, and may find themselves wondering what they’ve stumbled into. I was most certainly one of the latter. That said, I’m definitely intrigued by Fitzpatrick’s visual art enough to be checking out his other work.

photos by Johnny Knight

Nickel History: the Nation of Heat
Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre
ends on August 5, 2012
for tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf

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