PART OF CHICAGO THEATRE WEEK 2018
Gwen had always been – as far as she could recall, anyway – a strong proponent of casting beyond image. When dealing with historical figures onstage, she always considered it far more important to capture the spirit and character of a historical figure, more than casting a lookalike simply for visual accuracy. Her varied opinions on cross-gender and race-conscious casting stemmed from this central belief.
Thus, she was surprised when her initial reaction to Jackalope Theatre’s Franklinland was her unease that –
“He doesn’t really look that much like Benjamin Franklin at the beginning.”
Eleanor paused, thinking back to it. “Well, I guess he doesn’t have the glasses then, but that’s about it.”
“Is that all it is?”
“Yeah, plus he can’t have the glasses in the first scene, he invents them in the last one,” Dania reminded them.
The trio stepped carefully over the raked corner of the stage, navigating their way out of the brick-lined loft where Jackalope’s performance space was wedged in, on the second floor of the Broadway Armory. They exited the theater, onto a hallway overlooking the general-purpose gymnastic space that filled most of the first floor. Ropes and nets hung from the rafters.
“If they ever want to do a show with flying…” Eleanor joked.
“They’d likely find some more artistic way to depict flying than actually lifting people,” Gwen said. “They’re smart Chicago artists like that.”
Gwen also thought back to Ben Franklin at the beginning of the play. Tom Hickey, in the role, had seemed somewhat older than she expected – less of a learned inventor and more of a puttering dreamer. Then again, she thought, that is the purpose of the play. There was certainly poetry to be found in a character named Ben Franklin only coming to resemble the famous historical figure in the play’s final moments. Not that he was wholly dissimilar, though.
“Then again,” Gwen continued aloud, “he does spend most of the first few scenes reiterating that he’s the great Ben Franklin.”
“That was so weird,” Dania said. “Like, how would he know that he’s famous if he’s not famous yet?”
“Well, I think he’s supposed to already be famous, that’s the point,” Eleanor suggested. “He’s already a notable member of colonial society at the start, as a writer and inventor and any of the other thousand things he did.”
“University founder,” Gwen added. “Printing press owner.”
“Exactly,” Eleanor agreed. “At the beginning of the play, he’s already got the sizeable reputation to pass onto William. It only makes sense, really, that Ben assumes that the fame will outlast him.”
“He’s such a jerk, it’s kinda hilarious,” Dania said. “The whole opening scene where he’s talking about how great he is.”
She chuckled, remembering the moment. “‘You gotta handle yourself, William,'” Dania quoted. “‘Do it all the time. Do it with a woman, with two women.'”
“‘Do it with a man,'” Eleanor said at the same time.
All three completed the quote together. “‘For science!'”
“He’s a character,” Eleanor said. The three weaved their way through the labyrinth of the Broadway Armory, finally reaching the ground floor.
“It’s a masterstroke to get the audience onto William’s side,” Gwen said. “Watching that opening, you immediately comprehend what it’s like to live with someone like Ben Franklin.”
“Or at least fictional self-obsessed Ben Franklin,” Eleanor observed.
“You never know how accurate it really is.”
“I think my favorite bit was when William becomes governor…” Dania began, but her mind quickly shifted tracks. “‘New Jersey?'” she quoted, with Ben’s characteristic disgust. “‘New Jersey?‘”
“Yeah, I’m sure this show will play really well in Trenton,” Eleanor smirked.
“Oh, they know.”
“Anyway, when William is governor of New Jersey,” Dania continued. “It’s just so awesome when both of them are being really passive aggressive at each other about Ben borrowing money. The coughing, that’s a funny moment.”
“He’s a cold dude,” Eleanor said. “That William. I mean, he grows into it, but he – it avoids having the scene, you know the scene, where he’s all cold to his dad, but then something tragic happens and he reveals he actually loves him.”
“No, the scene where he yells at Ben kills any hope of that happening,” Gwen agreed. “It’s entertaining to see that type of bile come up in the middle of a story, rather than being saved for the explosive ending. It’s refreshing, almost.”
“That guy’s a really good actor, the one playing William,” Eleanor said. She opened her program to glance at the names. “Kai Ealy.”
“He carried the entire show,” Gwen said. “He has to. Did you notice how he subtly matures over the course of the show?”
“Well, that’s just time shifting,” Dania commented. “He gets older, yeah.”
‘But if you watch his physicality,” Gwen added. “Remember in the first scene where he’s supposed to be young? And then think about the last one where he’s an adult. It’s as if there’s two different performers playing him, the transformation is performed so cleanly.”
“I guess so,” Eleanor agreed. “He’s certainly more active in the earlier scenes. Everyone is.”
“This whole show is a great one to study physicality, with the raked stage and the clear power dynamics in the staging,” Gwen continued. “Putting it on a rake was a smart choice.”
“Even if it means they look like they’re going to fall off the stage in the fight scene,” Eleanor said. “Speaking of which: the fight scene? What was that?”
“You didn’t like it?”
“I didn’t get it. Like, why include an actual physical fight between Ben and his son? Isn’t that usually something you do with words?”
“Usually,” Gwen said. “Theatre is life without the boring parts.”
“Okay, sure,” Eleanor said, her eyelids drooping. “It just seemed a little, I don’t know…silly?”
“Yeah, of course it was silly,” Dania said. “That’s why it’s funny. It’s like, ‘this is not supposed to be happening right now.’ Again, the best parts of the entire show are when Ben and William are super passive aggressive to each other. So when that turns into punching aggressive, that’s really funny.”
Eleanor shrugged. “Maybe. I thought it could have been dialogue.”
The three had left the building and were now walking through the biting cold of the Chicago winter. At this, a gust of wind suddenly rose out of the ground and smacked them as they walked. Eleanor reached up to hold onto her beanie.
“Perfect kite flying weather, eh?” Dania joked. All three laughed.
“Man, what a jerk,” Eleanor added.
“What, Ben?” asked Gwen.
“Yeah. Making his son go out into the wind, fly a kite and possibly electrocute himself. All for science.”
“For Franklinland,” Dania reminded her.
“Whatever,” Eleanor said. “I was salty the whole time about that. I don’t know, it’s a pet peeve, parents making their kids do the things the parents want them to do.”
“Yeah, it happens, and it sucks,” was Eleanor’s retort.
“It’s sort of similar to Relativity in a few ways,” Gwen mused. “Did you see that? It was at Northlight last year. The one about Einstein abandoning his daughter.”
“I think you saw that one alone,” Dania said.
“Regardless. It’s an interesting discussion to have, about whether or not famous people should have children.”
Dania hummed, consideringly. “I don’t know if you can dictate whether or not people should be having children.”
“But it’s a discussion,” Gwen prodded. “The point of Relativity is that – I hesitate to say ‘point,’ the ‘point’ of the show could vary…”
“But what you thought was…” Eleanor said.
“What I got out of it was that even if Einstein was a terrible father to his kids, his terribleness was due to a focus on his work – which still resulted in a net positive for humanity.”
“Atomic bomb aside,” Dania added, raising an eyebrow.
Gwen glared at her friend. “That aside,” she pressed on, “it’s a similar argument here. Should Ben Franklin have been a better father to his kid? Perhaps. But would he have made all the same discoveries that he did if he was focused on that?”
“I’m not sure it’s a perfect parallel, though,” Eleanor countered. “Einstein was too hands-off. Franklin is too hands-on. Like, yes, go make your inventions! But leave your son out of it!”
Dania considered this. “So he should have been a worse parent?” she concluded.
“I don’t know, maybe yes, in so many words.”
“It’s food for thought,” Gwen said. “And the playwright focuses on it very clearly. Not to mention that Chika Ike is clearly quite adept at pulling that meaning out of the conversations. There’s not a lot of exposition in the play past the first scene, but we glean what we need to out of the physical interactions between characters. It’s smartly staged.”
“Well, I’m still angry with Ben,” Eleanor said. “But I enjoyed the play.”
“I thought it was funny,” Dania smiled. “Two thumbs up for me.”
“I’m just gonna let my kid do whatever they want to do,” Eleanor continued, to no one in particular. “Let them live their life. No hand-holding.”
“I thought you said you don’t want to have kids,” Gwen reminded her.
“I don’t,” Eleanor said. “And that’s the best way to guarantee you don’t helicopter parent your kids.”
“What, to not have them?”
“You can’t tell me it doesn’t work.”
Image Credit: Maisonet Photography