Theater Review: MAD BEAT HIP & GONE (Promethean Theatre Ensemble)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 6, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Walt Whitman may have patented the “song of the open road,” but the Beat Generation gave it their own course correction and made it into a map. These writers of the Eisenhower Era, most notably Jack Kerouac in On the Road, turned bittersweet wanderlust into their own manifest destiny. In a time before such tracking devices as credit cards and cellphones, the urge to take off and put your past in the rear-view mirror was a postwar passion.

Now rewritten, prolific playwright Steven Dietz’s Mad Beat Hip & Gone is a 2013 ode to this rootless aesthetic as it rekindles this very different road rage. It’s also a twisted valentine to the lesser souls who blazed their trails.

Beautifully tooled up by Jess Hutchinson, Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s Chicago premiere captures the perils and possibilities of surrendering to the mindless movement of travel for its own sake. Appropriately, Bec Willett’s backdrop is a muddied map of the U.S. that lights up to illustrate the action.

Interestingly, Kerouac himself indirectly appears here early in the story as a smooth-talking French-Canadian chronicler who seduces a girl named Juanita (who will later appear in his magnum opus). He is restored here along with his hipster pal Neal Cassaday and their iconic Hudson. (At one point they’re even waiting for a guy named Alan who will write a poem called Howl.) These “cool cats” are collecting memories for future reference.

Less memorable are two high school graduates who want Juanita for themselves (and didn’t even make it into K’s epic travelogue). Childhood chums, Rich Rayburn (Michael Vizzi) and Danny Fergus (Pat King) feel stuck in Kimball, Nebraska in the mid-1950s. Rich — living with the Ferguses since his mother disappeared and his dad died — finds Danny’s mom Penny (Elaine Carlson) as more than a mother. Cleaning rooms at the Bluebird Motel, Mrs. Fergus (an early version of Mrs. Robinson) brags how “I got keys!” and not just for housekeeping.

Adding a mystical element to this heartland setting is the strange appearance through flashbacks and actual appearances of Danny’s philosophical ex-G.I. father Albert Fergus (Ted Hoerl). First seen as an auto mechanic in love with the changing views from car windows, he pumps gas as he dispenses wisdom: people eager to get away find things they weren’t looking for. For him every trip has its end in its beginning and the night is filled with stars that are at best just “dying lights.”

When Albert meets young Honey Vance (Hilary Williams), who’s searching for her mother who disappeared in San Francisco, he urges the hitchhiker to tear up her road map: “Don’t get tangled up with roads.” People are the ultimate destination. Proclaiming himself a ghost, Albert haunts the play. Was his death, as proclaimed by his wife, really desertion? Will Danny, who seeks him as Honey does her mom, ever find him?

Nothing turns out the way these five seekers dream things. Honey, a jazz lover who takes a ride in the Hudson, literally gets lost after she tears up her map. Heading west after the peripatetic poets, these “uncool” Nebraska buddies fall for Honey even as she becomes a casualty of misogynistic writers and drugs.

Dietz plays fast and loose with place and time, preferring to evoke the nostalgia of the serial Burma-Shave roadside signs, the call of the jukebox, and the endless horizons glimpsed from Route 66.

By the end — eleven years later — Danny has becomes a beatnik poet in his own right, channeling the laid-back, free-associative vibes of Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who just turned 100 last March!), while more conventional Rich is a buttoned-down Wall Street “Mad Man.” Alas, like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, these mopes were destined to play supporting roles at best in the mid-century’s offbeat escapist literature.

Dietz has very contagious fun teasing his characters with quests they can’t fulfill while holding out enough hope to keep them on track. The dialogue bubbles over with the romance of the road, the giddy opportunities for self-renewal that beckon from every turn. Though a bit too old for their roles, Vizzi and King drive home the feckless randomness of embryonic characters making themselves up as they go along. They may lack the war that gave their dads purpose but destiny is where you find what you make.

Veteran thespians with richly sardonic overtones, Hoerl and Carlson spice up the story as the adult “reality principles,” both fanciful and practical. Playing the most innocent character, Williams’ “fantasy chick” Honey is winsome as both catalyst and casualty, a living ghost being chased across the country.

Mad Beat Hip & Gone is faithful to every word in its title. Best of all, it’s its own map. Bum a ride.

production photos by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography
photo of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac by Carolyn Cassady

Mad Beat Hip & Gone
Promethean Theatre Ensemble
The Edge Theater Off-Broadway
1133 W. Catalpa Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2;
Mon at 7:30 (May 13)
ends on June 1, 2019
for tickets, visit Promethean

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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