The Great Galvani

Written and directed by Shawn Reddy

H.B. Ward in The Great Galvani.

BOTTOM LINE: A taste of the Chicago alternative scene.

The Windy City is well-known for a rugged and vigorous style of acting epitomized by the Steppenwolf ensemble. In recent years the city has asserted its dominance of the American theatre with a host of Broadway and off-Broadway transfers (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning August Osage County). I knew this when I went out there for grad school.

But I didn't know about the thriving, fascinating, and oddly viable avante-garde scene brewing off-Loop, featuring notables such as 500 Clown, Plasticene Physical Theatre and Curious Theatre Branch. Working in tight-knit circles for years at a time, bands of progressive artists are quietly challenging the European-influenced downtown New York scene for the soul of new performance in America.

To wit – the Magpies, a fairly new troupe of thinkers making their East Coast debut. The brainchild of writer/director Shawn Reddy, this heady bunch has set out to…well, let them tell you:

"The Magpies create works that are interconnected by a unique vision of educational presentation, elements of environmental immersion, and group learning…their pieces construct kaleidoscopic narratives that cull together personal stories, historical research and non-traditional art fields in order to cultivate new ways of intervening in the world."

I did eventually get that advanced degree in theatre, but I'm still not sure I can tell you what that means. But do I know that this new field out in the Midwest tells me more about what is really happening in this country than almost anything else I've seen.

This piece from the Magpies is perhaps not the strongest example of the work being done in Chicago, but it has many of its signature features: a highly presentational style, a raw emotional openness, and a beef-fed vigor that feels like it came from the farm rather than the salon. Think Sam Shepard at La Mama in the late 1960s.

H.B. Ward, as the one actor (and clear stand-in for Reddy), fits completely here – broad and artfully weathered, with a curiously masculine voice that is deep and resonant while remaining metallic in a fascinating way. Ward, wearing a curious but fairly consistent light Italian accent, prowls the stage of a seedy carnival freak-show, spinning out the odd-ball tale of his father, the "Great" Louis Galvani, an Italian doctor who discovered that electricity will make a dead frog's legs twitch.

It's odd subject matter, and when the lights suddenly go out a mere 30 minutes in (including the aforementioned bearded-lady prologue), I was left wondering what it was all about, but I could easily have sat through at least two of the other three monologues that form Reddy's opus The Art of Unbearable Sensations. For example, take this little nugget from the poetic pen of Mr. Reddy. "You know, Socrates, or Plato, or another toga-clad teaser of boys." Toga-clad teaser of boys. That's some good stuff.

Anyhoo – it's 30 minutes long, it will tell you something about what's going on in art in the country, and it's upstairs from the legendary Café Wha in the Village. What's to lose?


(The Great Galvani plays at the Players Loft, 115 MacDougal Street, through August 29th. Remaining performances are Saturday 8/28 at 7pm and Sunday 8/29 at 12pm. For more information visit Tickets are $15 in advance or $18 at the door. Visit or call (866) 468-7619. Running time is approximately 30 minutes with no intermission.)