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Theater Thu Sep 26 2013

The Benchmark at Step Up Productions Tells a Story of Homelessness

Step Up Productions' new play The Benchmark tries hard and has many virtues, but ultimately fails to engage us. Richard A. Roberts has written what is essentially a one-man play with strong messages about how our society has failed to take care of its people, failed to overcome poverty, provide health care and good education, and stay out of international entanglements.

Benchmark-StepUp-GB.jpg

Photo by Liz Lauren.

Daniel Houle plays Mark, a homeless man, with an eloquent 85-minute Bartlett's Quotations-laden monologue about those failures. Director Tara Branham choreographs Mark's life, day and night, season by season, in a small but very atmospheric stage design in one of the Athenaeum Theatre's studio spaces.

Other people pass and occasionally engage with Mark. Amy Geist as a nearly mute Bag Lady hovers nearby, constantly rearranging her small trove of possessions and rooting through a trash bin for leftover edibles. (Next time you throw away a half-eaten sandwich, remember that it might be a homeless person's next meal.)

Mark has been "on the street" for 10 years and before that lived an everyday life with a job, a wife and child. His drinking caused his life to fall apart; although he says he tried rehab, it never worked. Over the years, he has been a voracious reader and his shopping cart is full of a mixed-salad of used books he has found, cadged or bought. He glibly quotes writers from Shakespeare to Thoreau to Keynes and rarely completes a sentence without quoting one of them. He mourns the decline of libraries, his source of warmth as well as literature. He describes himself as being in the newspaper business, as he sells Streetwise to passersby. Mark is still beset with drinking problems and a bottle is always within reach.

Occasionally, one of the other characters who moves in and out of the scene buys a copy of Streetwise but mostly they focus on their cell phones or companions, weaving their own silent stories. A man with a briefcase talks on his phone and interacts with two women, one of whom is pregnant and later, a mother. Young people, a yoga girl, a young Mormon missionary, and park district employees, all pass through the scene intent on their own business, without interacting or even seeming to notice Mark. The playwright suggests accurately that this is how most of us deal with homeless people.

Rob Wilson plays the cop who patrols the beat and deals sympathetically with Mark and his park bench, the home of the homeless. The cop gives Mark a Christmas gift of the collected works of Shakespeare; he is also the one who finds him as the play ends, cocooned in a blanket on his bench.

Houle plays Mark with passion and charisma, but ultimately his rant goes nowhere. Nothing changes from beginning to end. There's little drama in The Benchmark and the sad ending is inevitable.

Shaun Renfro has designed a clever setting with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop. Pillars and an arch, suggesting an old Chicago park, are constructed of books mortared in place. Mark's bench is graffiti-covered. The key prop is a large trash bin that 'Bag Lady' frequently checks for new food deposits.

Roberts comments in the playbill about how he came to write the play. The inspiration came to him when he was working on "The Long Way Home," a PBS documentary on homelessness. Mark's character and experiences are based on a composite of three homeless and alcohol-abusing individuals that he knew, one of whom was his father.

Step Up Productions will donate a portion of its proceeds to the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness.

The Benchmark will run through October 20 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Performances are at 8pm Thursdays-Saturdays and at 2pm Sundays. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased online or by calling 773-935-6875.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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