In a space the size of my bedroom, Oracle Theatre slaughters and carves up cattle, fights for workers’ rights, celebrates a wedding, worships at Christmas, and dies in childbirth. And with rolls of paper and paint, they conjure believable scenes of life in Chicago’s Packingtown a century ago. (Take that, large downtown theaters that spend tens of thousands of dollars on scenery.)
Oracle’s powerful world premiere production of “The Jungle,” adapted from the 1906 novel by muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair, makes us viscerally experience the poverty, horrible working conditions and labor strife of immigrant workers and their families.
The play begins with four people setting out from Lithuania to a place called Chicago, where they believe they can get work. Jurgis (Travis Delgado) is tall and strong and ready to work hard. His sweetheart Ona (Stephanie Polt) and her cousin Marija (Havalah Grace) are eager to work too. Marija has her Lithuanian-English dictionary so she can learn English. Even Jurgis’ sickly father Antanas (Drew McCubbin) is ready to take a job.
When they arrive in Chicago, they meet their countryman Jakob (Dylan Stuckey), who owns a store. (“J. Svedvilas Delicatessen. Meat. Cheese. Breakfast.”) He informs them of some of the realities of life and work. It’s not easy to get work at the stockyards. You have to line up early. The bosses are corrupt.
But the new immigrants are ambitious. They want to work in the stockyards and buy a house. Jurgis and Ona want to marry. They don’t know that the game is rigged, in every way.
At the stockyards, men work on floors covered with blood and foul water. Weaker workers are sent to work in the ‘fertilizer room,” where organs, bones and extra parts are tossed after cattle and hogs are carved up for meat. If the unfortunate victim becomes part of the next batch of sausage, well, that’s how it goes in Packingtown. As the saying goes, “They don’t waste anything here. They use everything but the squeal.” Even “downers” or sick cattle, are carved up for sale.
Matt Foss adapted the novel and directs this story of the Chicago stockyard workers and the corruption and squalor in which they labored. Foss is also the creator of the ingenious set design, where rolls of paper are pulled down to be stamped with a cattle chart or rolled across to represent the ocean crossing, a train ride or the Chicago flag. Nicholas Tonozzi composed the original music and directs Sam Allyn’s haunting score, infused with some Delta blues touches and a chorus of the folk song, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” which you might remember from the 2013 film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Music is performed by Allyn, Dylan Stuckey and Colin Morgan on guitars, percussion and keyboard. Sometimes the music is a quiet drum staccato, sometimes silky guitar chords, and occasionally a rousing song performed by the cast of 10.
The cast is strong, with a sweetly moving performance from Polt and a feisty one from Grace. Kate Staiger plays the widow who owns the boardinghouse where they live. Her animated chicken puppet was designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock, who also created the cattle design that’s repeatedly stamped on paper rolls. Thomas Wynne does a malicious turn as Connor, the corrupt boss of the stockyards. And Colin Morgan is someone you can hate as a sleazy real estate agent and a crooked bartender.
The tiny performance space is a little claustrophic with rows of chairs and benches tightly enclosing the performance space. If you sit on a front-row bench, chances are you’ll be spattered with tempera paint (water-based and removable, I can attest). The 100-minute play runs with no intermission. “The Jungle” truly is a play whose mood should not be interrupted.
In the final scene, after tragedy has overcome all, Tamos (Rick Foresee) ensures his coworker Jurgis that things will change. He sings “Chicago will be ours” and the full cast joins in to sing “Anthem for a New Chicago.” As they sing, the Chicago flag is painted on the horizontal paper banner. Instead of four stars? Four bloody handprints.
Your Chicago ancestors may have greeted the Pilgrims, arrived on the Mayflower or a slave ship, or come in to Ellis Island. Whatever their origin, they’re part of our history. You can relive it in this stirring drama.
Oracle’s productions are often classic political or social justice dramas by Odets, Brecht, Fo, Genet or Garcia Lorca. In the belief that you can’t live without art, the company is committed to “public access theater”—free theater for all. Tickets for all performances are free but require a reservation. Executive producer Ben Fuchsen says the theater is a not-for-profit corporation, supported by foundation and corporate grants and an occasional crowdfunding project. Oracle has individual supporters in three categories: Patrons who leave cash tips, one-time donors, and supporters known as “The Forty 4,” who sign up for an automatic monthly charge. Oracle began producing theater in 2005 and has operated under the free theater “public access” model since 2010.
This review was previously posted on gapersblock.com/ac/.