Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor’s plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured (l-r): Robert N. Isaac, Christopher Meister, and Aida Delaz. Photo by Carin Silkaitis.
By Conor McShane
Speaking from personal experience, developing a new play can be challenging, especially in a workshop setting. Workshops are an extremely important part of the writing process, but with so many voices in the mix, each offering input, and ideas, it can easily turn into a “too many cooks” situation. Other Theatre’s production of Martín Zimmerman’s THE MAKING OF A MODERN FOLK HERO, presented in association with Chicago Dramatists’ Grafting Project, and developed largely through workshops at Dramatists, seems to struggle with this conundrum. It doesn’t lack for ambition, but ends up falling flat in the execution. It’s too slackly staged and its various threads are too loosely realized to end up making much impact.
The story concerns Renzo Rafaelli (Chris Meister), a struggling actor in an unnamed city who’s contemplating a very dramatic act at the top of the show. Before he can pull it off, he’s interrupted by a visit from his college buddy David Dover (Robert N. Isaac), now an idealistic young congressman. David has an interesting proposition for Renzo—namely, dress like a superhero to help empower the disenfranchised residents of a damaged housing project who are in danger of losing their homes to corporate developers. David feels he’s unable to bring about the kind of sweeping change needed to protect these people from his elected position, but that a hero working outside the political realm might be able to make a difference. So Renzo dons a spandex suit and a black mask (which is referenced as having no nostril holes despite the fact that it clearly does) and calls the struggling residents to demonstrate. Surprisingly enough, it works, and soon Renzo—under the alias Volo Publicus—becomes a symbol to poor and struggling folks nationwide, aided by a plucky investigative blogger named Vanessa (Aida Delaz) who covers his exploits and gains a ton of followers in the process. Pretty soon, Volo’s gotten too big for David to control, as the hero takes on a life of his own, inadvertently inciting violence in the process.
Zimmerman’s play attempts to be several different things: a goofy comic book riff (bolstered by Nick Thornton’s shadow puppetry and the vocalized sound effects of puppeteers Becca Sheehan, Celeste Burns, and Adelina Feldman-Schultz), a political satire, and a serious discussion about politicians’ inability to enact change within the system. But these various tonal shifts don’t hang together in this production. Kelly Howe’s direction is a little too loose, and the play’s various stylistic choices don’t feel fully realized, leading to a sense of incompleteness. Much of the action happens offstage, recounted by Vanessa’s blog posts, which places the script in the telling mode, muddling the timeline and leading to a curious sense of remove, making it difficult for us to fully invest in Renzo’s journey.
Meister gives a likable and empathic performance, and does strong work making us feel Renzo’s desperation and how much the character of Volo means to him; it’s clear that Renzo’s commitment to his new persona stems from a deep longing for recognition and praise, possibly even more than his desire to help others, and Meister still manages to make him likeable rather than off-putting. The play ultimately muddles this aspect, as the narrative focus is pulled in too many directions. The story works best when it focuses on Renzo’s internal journey; as a character study of a hack actor grabbing ahold of an unlikely opportunity, but the larger point the play tries to make ends up getting lost.
THE MAKING OF A MODERN FOLK HERE runs through October 29th. For more information visit theothertheatrecompany.com.