"I know how the great basement of all power
Is frankness, and a true tongue to the world;
And how intriguing secrecy is proof
Of fear and weakness, and a hollow state."
If one follows the local press—especially the recent dustup over onstage violence and groping at Profiles Theatre —it is easy to imagine that tawdry spectacular pickins are all the fare Chicago has to offer. In the previous link a commenter remarks: "I go to hundreds of Chicago exhibits, musical performances and other arts events a year, but rarely to contemporary theatre. Descriptions of these productions explain why. I'm not interested in serial killers, trailer parks or white trash stereotypes. Good god, are Chicago audiences really this puerile?" One might think the answer was "Yes."
However, here and there, in lonely pockets, individuals are performing serious theater. One such case is the US premiere of Otho the Great by John Keats which I saw tonight. Otho cannot be considered great theater—Aeschylus has not been dislodged in my estimation—yet I feel singularly blessed to see a mounting of a play which did not appear on a stage until 1950, more than a century after its author's death. A first play must almost necessarily be faulty, and Otho was born of desperation, or born into turmoil rather, at the prodding of Keats' friend Charles Brown. "I have only acted as midwife to his plot," Keats wrote.
The drama is better than I could have guessed from reading, though at the time I had given Otho my closest attention I myself had not taken my first stab, and lacked the ability to judge properly. Today I know better—but even imperfect Keats is sacrosanct, and his words spoken aloud by the actors came as Mozart to my ears.
The driving force behind the production was Frank Farrell, a proponent of Free Shakespeare in Chicago, and a dedicated artist. The main roles were well-cast and well-acted: Douglas Bryan Bean as Otho the Great; Nick Bryant as Ludolph; and Jason Lacombe as Conrad. Actually—and one of the faults of the play—Otho's part is not so significant, and the body of the action lies with Ludolph. (I don't know if Farrell's version for the production has been cut or altered in any way.)
Keats was still learning, and it is easy to believe, once he had figured out his own method of plotting, instead of having to rely on Brown, that he would have become a great tragedian—yet the time was wrong for Shakespearean tragedies, and he would have had to evolve beyond the parameters set in Otho. Circumstances thwarted him, and he lacked time.
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UPDATE 6/14/2016: A friend asked for more specifics about the performance. I wrote: "It was better than expected—very Shakespearean in outward aspect, but without the inner coherence. It played pretty well, but towards the end Ludolph (in effect the "tragic hero") felt like a mix of Hamlet, Ophelia and Othello all rolled into one but without any satisfying conclusion. And the actor was good—the fault lay in the script. But there were dramatic moments that showed (to me at least) that he had an instinct for the stage."
Of course I added, "I wish the troupe had managed to work Blake's King Edward the Third into the evening", possibly as a prologue—but that might have been too much for an audience.