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‘Adventures of Augie March’ undergoes a long and winding transformation at Court Theatre

For a play about a man who has such trouble reaching adulthood, it’s a play best viewed by adults — or at least those with adult-like attention spans.

Chaon Cross and Patrick Mulvey star in “The Adventures of Augie March” at Court Theatre.
Mark Brosilow

How do you solve a problem like young Augie March? The eponymous hero of Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, “The Adventures of Augie March,” gets dropped into a classic coming-of-age tale but can’t quite seem to arrive at the intended destination. He’s a follower and a wanderer, a dreamer who falls in too easily with schemers, and a guy who can’t commit to being an upstanding gent or a shady ne’er-do-well. In other words, he’s a lot like us.

When it comes to lifting Augie March off the page and placing him down onto the stage, the problems are mostly logistical. A meandering, picaresque plot is all fine and dandy when you have hundreds of pages in which to explore the character’s inner life and craft a detailed portrait of the world around him. But from it’s earliest days, the theater has been a place of action, where outward gestures reign supreme. An audience can’t put a play down the way they would a book, which means it’s up to the play to hold their attention. Even Shakespeare gets trimmed down nowadays to make sure things speed along.

In adapting Bellow’s novel, playwright David Auburn (of “Proof” fame) and director Charles Newell try to solve this dilemma in two ways. One, they embrace a dreamlike sense of theatricality that pushes Augie’s inner life out onto the surface. Two, they say “screw it” and steer into the skid. The pair’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” now playing at Court Theatre, expects its audiences to attend it patiently, to follow its digressions and parse through its poetical bursts. For a play about a man who has such trouble reaching adulthood, it’s a play best viewed by adults — or at least those with adult-like attention spans.

“The Adventures of Augie March” opens with an older Augie, played throughout by Patrick Mulvey, stuck in a boat with a man named Bateshaw (John Judd). Having joined the Merchant Marines during World War II, Augie’s ship has been sunk by a German U-Boat. Bateshaw quickly reveals himself to be quite the loon and answers Augie’s attempt to alert a passing boat with an oar to the skull. The rest of the show unfolds inside Augie’s head, his unconscious embodied by set designer John Culbert’s pitch-black, industrial set and starkly noir-ish, almost prison-like lighting.

Augie’s hardscrabble Chicago childhood finds him trying to navigate a half-blind mother (Chaon Cross), a simple-minded brother (Travis Turner), a domineering grandmother-who-isn’t-actually-his-grandmother (Marilyn Dodds Frank), and the expectations of his older, much more self-assured brother, Simon (Luigi Sottile). Never one for school, Augie starts working as an assistant for the brusque, yet kindly businessman Einhorn (Judd again) and gets roped into some local hoodlum plots, including an ill-fated boxing match.

It’s at that match that Augie meets the effervescent heiress Thea (Cross) with whom he will eventually run away to Mexico to … train an eagle to catch giant iguanas. But first, The Great Depression hits, leaving Augie to find work stealing textbooks for rich university students alongside his friends Padilla (Kai Ealy) and Mimi (Aurora Real de Asua). This work is interrupted when Simon strong-arms him into marrying the sister of Simon’s newfound bride-to-be, the fallout from which pushes Augie to Mexico with Thea — where he meets another woman, an actress named Stella (Abby Pierce) — and eventually to the Merchant Marines and that lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic.

As Augie, Mulvey brings a natural ease and charm that rarely seems to exist on the page: He bridges the gaps between the man himself and the attraction Augie holds to other people. Mulvey is supported by a fine ensemble, led by Cross and Judd, that likewise infuses the show with life. Using often little more than some chairs, some tables, a few white curtains and the bodies of those ensemble members, Newell and movement consultant Erin Kilmurray create a roiling sea of action, part modern dance, part devised theater, part clown show.

Those clean lines and minimalist aesthetic give the show a classical sheen that occasionally becomes its downfall. Of the play’s three acts, the Mexico-centric third part is its most successful, in no small part because it’s the most playful and the least given to pretense. That it also heavily features the puppet and shadow-play work of Drew Dir and Manual Cinema is no accident. In addition to being “An American, Chicago born,” as he’s so fond of saying, Augie March is also a bit of a fool. He’s a problem, one that this production can’t quite solve.

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.