“Oil! & The Jungle,” adapted from Upton Sinclair, directed by Kym Longhi and Karla Grotting, 2011
Theater in Minneapolis is mostly middle-class entertainments, exemplified by the Guthrie, or trivial hipster indulgences like the “Fringe Festival.” However, given we are the Number Two theater town in the U.S. by population, there are other choices, from Intermedia Arts shows to the productions of August Wilson at Penumbra or the Pillsbury Theater, or the left-originated Mixed Blood theater and Frank Theaters. Please add the University of Minnesota Theater to the list. Because labor and socialism almost never get their due.
This play is adapted from the text of Upton Sinclairs two best novels, “Oil” and “The Jungle.” (Both reviewed below) Anyone who has read The Jungle knows it is a completely unforgiving description of ethnic working class life in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Oil! is a more nuanced panorama of social life in California around the time of the First World War and after, centering on the budding oil industry there, from the point of view of the new oil elite. “There Will Be Blood,” the excellent film starring Daniel Day Lewis, was based on Oil!, but did not really follow the text.
This play is a monster, in its own way. Using violent motion, acrobatics, multi-media, music and song, dance, text, carefully-constructed balletic movement, Brechtian acting, satire and socialist politics, it creates a new visceral whole. Even if you have not read these books, the message is staring you in the face. The set itself is a facsimile of the class structure, with the rich above and the workers and poor below. The “Oil!” world squats over the “Jungle” world. Some people go up or down a few ladders occasionally, but the two worlds are definitely separated by distance, and only joined by … money. It is on the spiral ladder that the limited class interactions take place. The play links present events to Upton Sinclair’s past - oil wars, the CDO derivatives crisis, present unemployment, the housing foreclosure crisis, the BP oil disaster, the on-going buying of presidents and the continuing brutal treatment of animals and humans in slaughterhouses, making this play not a mere historical artifact. At one point, the Marxist agitator from the Oil/Jungle (probably Eugene Debs) says, “It is up to you.”
This play could not have been performed by an older group of actors and actresses, due to its physicality. It would only be at the University that you could find the youth, energy and numbers to make this real. The large ensemble is lead by talented seniors. One senior acts in two roles at once, as the “Dad” in Oil! (using a dummy), and also as Bunny, his son. Others play multiple roles, as well as singing. An excellent job is done by all.
Warning! If you suffer from depression, are easily overwhelmed, are hard of hearing, are squeamish or prudish, expect a linear story, or are conservative in your politics, this play might not be for you.
This play is sponsored by Mayday Books.
Last 4 shows – April 13, Wednesday@7:30 PM
April 14, Thursday@7:30 PM
April 15, Friday@8:00 PM
April 16, Saturday@8:00 PM
And I saw it at … Rarig Thrust Theatre on the U of M West Bank.
Red Frog, 4/11/2011