GIVE IT ALL BACK Explores Pressures of the Public Gaze

GIVE IT ALL BACK Explores Pressures of the Public Gaze

Pat Whalen, Paloma Nozicka, Andrew Goetten and McKenzie Chinn in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere of GIVE IT ALL BACK by Calamity West, directed by Marti Lyons. Photo by Jonathan L. Green. 

Review: GIVE IT ALL BACK at Sideshow Theatre Company

By Erin Shea Brady

Calamity West’s new play, GIVE IT ALL BACK, explores that great conflict between art and success. In the arts, whether or not a public life is part of our intention, whether or not we’ve truly considered celebrity, a certain amount of success will grant you fame, and with it, a unique brand of widespread recognition. This is not something that most of us need to worry about — we’ve all been told that the chances of reaching that level of success are slim to none — but if it happens, if our artistic vulnerability generates enough interest to make us famous, where does that leave us?

Art makes the private public, almost by definition — plays, songs, books expose the most intimate moments of human life — but great success requires our introspective artists to cultivate a public persona, and the accompanying personal sacrifice is often impossible to anticipate.

Certainly, celebrity functions much differently in our current culture than it did in the 1960s. Fame has taken on its own life, and is often independent of actual success in an actual field, but that’s a tangent for another time. West’s play focuses on a musician (Andrew Goetten), not unlike Bob Dylan, who is crumbling under the pressure of the public gaze. He’s losing himself, in his life and in his music. His friends are pissed. His new album is different and nobody likes it. He is hardly ever alone with himself, and when he is, he turns out the lights in his hotel room and lays down on the bed, desperate to shut it all out.

Around him float the Poet (played with total commitment by Mary Williamson), who loves to get high and throw down some truth about staying true to the art, the Representative (the very funny Pat Whalen), the Blonde (Lindsey Kite), and the Girl from Back Home (McKenzie Chinn). At first glance, we’re looking at a group of archetypes, and unfortunately, the writing doesn’t always penetrate beneath the surface. There are moments of real honesty that come through — particularly regarding the way in which women and homosexuals were forced to operate in the world that the play explores, and in the profound contemplation of life as an artist that comes through clearly and beautifully in the Artist’s last couple of scenes.

Chinn and Williamson are both exceptional, really digging deep to find the heart. All of the performances are good, though the style varies greatly between them. Throughout the production as a whole, there is a lack of cohesion — in the design, in the comedy, and in the overall understanding of our context. I had a hard time figuring out what was satire, what we were to accept as “truth”, and where theatrical convention came into play. I also wished that there was more variety in the age of this cast. There’s an opportunity to explore a lot of different points of view, and whether or not it’s meant to be satirical, there’s value in introducing a multi-generational perspective.

In a lot of ways, West’s writing really hits the zeitgeist. She’s an important voice in the world right now — and I look forward to following her work. There’s a lot that is powerful in this play, particularly for us artists but I think for audiences in general. Though it deserves to be developed and clarified, in its current iteration, I’d still recommend it.

About author

Erin Shea Brady

Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.