“Madness is contagious.”
We hear this warning often throughout “2666,” the monumental, labyrinthine, altogether hypnotic 5-and-one-half-hour magnum opus now on stage at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre. And if proof of its accuracy were required you need only point to the novel of the same name penned by the Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolano; to this riveting world premiere stage adaptation created and directed by Robert Falls and Seth Bockley; to the astonishing cast of 15 actors who change colors like chameleons throughout its long but enthralling running time; and to the visionary team of designers who lead you to countless locations on two continents and through nearly every decade of the 20th century.
Only a unique form of contagion — one combining equal parts madness and magic, nightmarish history and luminous artistic genius — could account for such a production.
And oh yes, not to be forgotten here is the nearly $1 million of funding for the production courtesy of the Roy Cockrum Foundation, created from Powerball money won by a former monk with a passion for theater. (No, you cannot make such things up, and Bolano, who died at the age of 50 in Barcelona in 2003, might have been especially delighted by Cockrum’s act of inspired madness, and the creative contagion it has engendered.)
When: Through March 20
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $20 – $45
Run time: 5 1/2 hours, with three intermissions
I confess, after attending a reading of this work several years ago I went away thinking: There is no way this dense, maze-like, hyper-intellectual story — with echoes of both Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, plus a hint of “Silence of the Lambs” — could possibly be made stage-worthy. I could not have been more wrong. A complex mix of satire, transcontinental detective drama, war story, family chronicle, 20th century fairy tale (with all the evil and betrayal such tales can contain), and, finally, a meditation on the roots of art, “2666” turns out to be a fully phantasmagorical voyage into the heart of darkness that vibrates with life at every crazy twist and turn.
It begins (hilariously), with a series of literary conferences and sexual escapades in various European cities, where four effete scholars (played with immense panache by Sean Fortunato, Lawrence Grimm, Demetrios Troy and the seductive Nicole Wiesner), meet, and share their mutual obsession with the work of an enigmatic German novelist bearing the name of Benno von Archimboldi. (The name echoes that of the 16th century Italian artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, famed for his remarkable portrait paintings devised of interlocking depictions of fruit, vegetables, meat and flowers that form a human face. And the technique, which assumes literary form in Bolano’s story, also coalesces in eye-popping form on the Goodman stage.)
Determined to track down the enigmatic writer who seems to elude all detection (even his publisher, Jacob Bubis, played by Jonathan Weir, knows little more than that he is a tall, now elderly German man who might be in line for a Nobel Prize), their search takes them to the forbidding, grimly industrial, corruption-ridden city of Santa Teresa in a northern province of Mexico.
Santa Teresa is the very real (if fictionally named) place where, since 1993, as many as 370 women have been stabbed, strangled, raped, mutilated and frequently left alongside a highway, with no real answer to the question of who the killer or killers might be. This reign of terror is particularly palpable in the story of the self-exiled Oscar Amalfitano (Henry Godinez, remarkable as a frightened, broken man). A literary scholar who hosts the four Europeans, he still mourns his wife, Lola (in a breathtaking portrayal by Charin Alvarez), who left him years ago to pursue a self-destructive passion. And he fears for his beautiful, curious, over-protected daughter, Rosa (the lovely and utterly believable Alejandra Escalante), who seems all too vulnerable to danger thanks to her friendship with the wild and crazy Rosita (Yadira Correa), and a couple of slimy guys played by Troy and Juan Francisco Villa.
This section of the show also makes extensive use of video (chilling work by Shawn Sagady), with a sense of horror generated in ways that might have felt artificial had they been staged live.
It also is in Mexico that two journalists (charismatic performances by both Eric Lynch as Oscar Fate, a Harlem-based writer drawn into the morass, and Sandra Delgado as Guadalupe Roncal, a scared yet fearless Mexican reporter), as well as a determined young police recruit (whip-smart actor Adam Poss), face off against a mostly misogynistic, often compromised and inept group of cops and investigators (expert work by Grimm, Troy, Fortunato), who for various reasons sidestep any true probe of this “femicide.” Janet Ulrich Brooks (perfection in a wide range of roles), is spot-on as the middle-aged mental asylum director who falls prey to the advances of a far younger police officer (a superb Villa). And providing a chillingly prophetic cry-to-arms about the murders is the uncanny Correa as a television psychic.
And then there is Klaus Haus (played by Mark L. Montgomery, Chicago’s answer to Anthony Hopkins in his ability to suggest the deceptive banality of evil), the German who owns computer stores in Santa Teresa and is charged as a serial killer, even if an equally pernicious group of upper class Mexicans also should be among the investigated.
Montgomery is central to the apocalyptic Third Reich episode at the core of the final act of “2666,” too, as he plays Hans in a modern riff on the Hansel and Gretel story. We follow him from dreamy nature boy. to hapless soldier on the Eastern front. to somewhat removed witness to the Holocaust, to resident of a bombed-out Berlin, and finally… well, it is here that I must stop spinning the web.
Walt Spangler’s extraordinary set (exquisitely lit by Aaron Spivey), is both minimalist and maximalist, and evocative of countless periods and places. A true wonder, as are Ana Kuzmanic’s brilliant costumes, and the original music and sound by Richard Woodbury and Mikhail Fiksel.
Watching this Goodman production — which surely will go down as one of those landmark moments in Chicago theater history — it is impossible to escape the fact that it has arrived at a moment of immense 21st century global turmoil. The unexplained title of Bolano’s book may, indeed, turn out to be prophetic. A countdown clock might be in order.