Chicago Theater Review: THE JUNGLE (Oracle Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 20, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

IT’S NOT JUST THE MEAT, IT’S THE MISERY

The ensemble of Oracle Theatre's production of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, adapted and directed by Matt Foss. Photo by Logan ConnerThe final searing image in Oracle Theatre’s pile-driving retelling of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking masterwork is a bold take on the Chicago flag: Now the blue stripes flank not four stars but four bloody handprints. The vandalism happens just after the magnificent ten-member ensemble have erupted in a defiant chorus of “This Town Will Be Ours!,” much like the ardent anthems in Oracle’s much-praised revivals of Brecht’s The Mother and Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. Pulsating with Nicholas Tonozzi’s percussive score (played by one-man-band Sam Allyn), these 100 minutes are as much a call to arms as a cry for help.

The ensemble in Oracle Theatre's production of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, adapted and directed by Matt Foss. Photo by Logan ConnerThe deliberate desecration of the flag proves an apt attack, considering that the city and its South Side stockyards portrayed in 1906 cuts up and grinds down people as much as pigs and cows. That second slaughter is achingly illustrated in the saga of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus. A character announces, “When you’re poor, everything is robbery”; Jurgis, his beloved Ona, aged dad Dede Antanas and cousin Marija—no socialist stereotypes–get a full fleecing. Of course, it’s just what was said of the Swift and Armour slaughterhouses: They “used up everything but the squeal,” producing fertilizer, buttons and gelatin. The workers fared no better.

Travis Delgado as Jurgis in Oracle Theatre's production of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, adapted and directed by Matt Foss. Photo by Jason Fassl.Jurgis is overcharged at his tenement lodgings at 4306 S. Ashland, ripped off in a housing scam, made drunk in order to vote repeatedly and illegally, and forced to pay bribes in order to work at Brown’s slaughterhouse and Durham’s fertilizer plant six days a week for 17 cents an hour. Their awful world: the dangerous Packingtown killing pits where the stench and pollution foul skies and water (“I will not pay to work,” Jurgis declares—but he must).

Ironically, this laborer who keeps placating his oppressors by promising to work harder erroneously thinks that union dues are the same as the company’s extortion: Not knowing who your friends are is part of being poor. For attacking his despicable boss, Jurgis ends up spending a month in the hideous Bridewell jail. The family is evicted from a house they never had the right to occupy, their payments lost forever.

His Job-like suffering doesn’t end here: Jurgis’ confused father is locked into a meat locker and disappears without a trace, while his wife is regularly taken downtown by Jurgis’ plant boss to be regularly raped (Ona, a kept woman, dare not squeal on him for fear of their losing work and home). When a drunken, guilt-ridden Chicago patrician gives Jurgis a small fortune of $100, he’s quickly stripped of this godsend in a venal tavern. With no decent health care, 18-year-old Ona’s act of childbirth becomes a curse, not a blessing.

Colin Morgan, Travis Delgado, and Drew McCubbin in Oracle Theatre's production of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, adapted and directed by Matt Foss. Photo by Jason Fassl.It’s bitterly ironic that the original readers’ reaction to Sinclair’s novel was not indignation over the treatment of these Eastern European immigrants in our “hog butcher to the world.” No, their real rage was reserved for the discovery that these subhumans were contaminating their meat with their hands. Because they were unclean, the sausages were too. (It was, of course, a bit unpleasant that some workers fell into rendering vats or were crushed along with the animal parts.) As Sinclair wryly declared, “I aimed at the public’s heart but by accident hit its stomach.” Getting it right, Jack London called it “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.” Winston Churchill liked it, even if Teddy Roosevelt did not. More typical of the pushback, an early editor castigated the book as not so much about helping the poor as hating the rich.

Travis Delgado. Thomas Wynne and Grayson Heyl in Oracle Theatre's production of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, adapted and directed by Matt Foss. Photo by Jason Fassl.However condensed into one act, Oracle’s powerful dramatization redresses this reaction, putting persecuted people caught up in a rigged game and a class struggle before the packing plant as an unsanitary workplace exporting tubercular beef. Burning stencils of quartered cows into rolling butcher-paper, adaptor Matt Foss’ staging certainly suggests the chaos of the abattoir. But the crude signs for the neighborhood delicatessen, boarding house, and saloon are equally demeaning.

Travis Delgado (persuasive as a proletariat puppet in Oracle’s recent The President) brings salt-of-the-earth immediacy to Jurgis. Stephanie Polt’s earnest Ona is equally unworthy of the mean hard times that become their American nightmare. Dylan Stuckey’s decent storeowner represents the embattled integrity of the Windy City, while Thomas Wynne’s rapacious superintendent is quite the opposite.  Everyone else is captivatingly convincing.

Travis Delgado and Stephanie Polt in Oracle Theatre's production of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, adapted and directed by Matt Foss. Photo by Logan ConnerWith the cast surging around a small storefront stage packed with viewers on rows and benches, it makes for a claustrophobic, blood-spattered evening with less than ideal sightlines. But that’s exactly the imploding world that Jurgis and his clan endured. A more complete picture and indictment of civic corruption can’t be imagined this side of The Front Page—and this one won’t laugh our troubles away. The groans are on us and our 1 %. Your ballpark franks come with a human price as much as an animal one.

Travis Delgado and Dylan Stuckey in Oracle Theatre's production of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, adapted and directed by Matt Foss. Photo by Jason Fassl.photos by Jason Fassl
and Logan Conner (Oomphotography)

The Jungle
Oracle Theatre
3809 N Broadway at Grace St
Friday, Saturday and Monday at 8 pm
Sundays at 7 pm
scheduled to end on May 31, 2014
for tickets, call 252-220-0269
or visit www.publicaccesstheatre.org
for more info, visit www.oracletheatre.org

for info on other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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