With his astonishing new play, “The Minutes,” a pitch black comedy about the current state of American politics and the “fake news” elements in our national history, Tracy Letts has written the 21st century equivalent of “The Rite of Spring.” He has devised a blood ritual rooted in the more farcical manifestations of local government and parliamentary procedure, and along the way he has explained how some in this country have been brutally sacrificed, and why such sacrifices continue to be sanctioned.
When: Through Jan. 7, 2018
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $105
Run time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one intermission
If you are looking for the combination of warm embrace and savvy satirical bite that, for example, characterizes Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton,” be advised: That is not in Letts’ temperament. But if you have observed the workings of Chicago’s City Council (or, for that matter, your condo board) over the decades, it is a good bet you will recognize the play’s lunatic version of democracy at work, and then be confronted by something far more pernicious than garden variety graft, corruption, chicanery and the pursuit of trivial personal agendas.
Set in the city council meeting room of the fictional mid-size city of Big Cherry (David Zinn’s weighty pomp-and-circumstance set evokes the patriotic grandeur found in many such places, with Peoria serving as a model), “The Minutes” convenes an eccentric group of characters with Dickensian names, beginning with Mayor Superba (William Petersen in a rare return to the Steppenwolf stage).
Petersen is joined by a Broadway-ready cast of council members including Francis Guinan (as Mr. Oldfield, the doddering veteran of the group, whose obsession is an undesignated parking spot); Danny McCarthy (as Mr. Hanratty, the man with a grand plan for an expensive but accessible city-center fountain retrofitted for the handicapped); Penny Slusher (as Ms. Innes, who makes a passionate proclamation regarding the preservation of the annual Big Cherry Heritage Festival); Jeff Still (as Mr. Assalone, the kingpin in a lucrative bicycle scam); Kevin Anderson (as Mr. Breeding, a self-satisfied defender of the status quo); James Vincent Meredith (as Mr. Blake, the man who votes according to how the wind is blowing); and most crucially of all, Cliff Chamberlain (as Mr. Peel, the newcomer to the council, and a seeker of transparency, up to a point). Also of vital importance is Brittany Burch (as Ms. Johnson, the discreet and meticulous city clerk privy to important information).
Notably missing from the council meeting upon Mr. Peel’s return to work following the death of his mother is Mr. Carp (Ian Barford as the genuine truth-seeker who pays a price for his revelations). Also missing are the minutes from the previous week’s meeting which might hold the clue to why Carp is no longer among them. Suffice it to say that it has everything to do with Carp setting the record straight about the true history of Big Cherry and how its mythic self-invention spins around a “foundational myth” involving the triumph of local farmers and soldiers over marauding Sioux Indians. It is a story “re-enacted” with hilarious verve. And, as if written in the heat of the recent uproar about public statues, a monumental bronze horse and rider play a supporting role here, too.
The ludicrous banter that consumes most of the council meeting cannily suggests how major issues (including the city’s problematic electrical grid that triggers occasional power surges during the proceedings) are lost in the shuffle. But Letts saves his real outrage for last, and its details should not be disclosed here. Suffice it to say that director Anna D. Shapiro, who has expertly orchestrated the entire production, has choreographed a bloody ritual scene that might give Nijinsky a run for his money. And Petersen delivers Letts’ tirade on how we refuse to confront “the lies of history” because doing so would uproot our comfortable existence. The message is not original. But you need look no further than the recent case of the Dakota pipeline controversy to know how the self-interest of the powerful trumps all. Or simply consult “The Minutes.”