The director and adaptor of Oracle Theatre’s The Jungle, Matt Foss, writes in the director’s notes about Upton Sinclair’s disappointment that his book “led to sweeping pure-food laws, rather than to changes in the living and working conditions of America’s workers.” In comparison, Foss’s adaptation focuses tightly on the workers, creating the most disturbing, powerful, impactful piece of theatre I have seen all year.
In The Jungle, brutality and corruption reign supreme, particularly over the poor and unwary. While unions remain a shadowy specter around the edges of the play, the gains they have made are starkly obvious against the nigh impossible working conditions in the play. The Jungle follows a small group of Lithuanian immigrants who arrive in Chicago in the early 1900s, knowing no English beyond the city’s name. They have minimal savings and a friend who owns a delicatessen – very modest beginnings, but by the end of the play, their starting point seems unreachably high.
In their optimism and naïveté, the immigrants (Jurgis, his wife-to-be Ona, her cousin Marija, and Jurgis’s elderly father Antanas) remind me, oddly enough, of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, only they live in a more brutal world, with fewer rights, where they never get a break. Jurgis’s pride, stubbornness, and insistence that America is the land of freedom and opportunity – despite all evidence to the contrary – contribute to their downfall, but frankly, the real problem is that they were set up to fail. The factory supervisor takes advantage of their desperation for a job and lack of English skills, to the point where they end up paying him for the opportunity to work. They sink all their savings into “buying” a home from a con artist who has them sign a contract they can’t read – a home that is eventually taken from them, as it has been from many immigrants before them. Above all, there’s no one to whom they can turn.
Oracle has a tiny theatre with only forty-four seats – the action is immediate, and the sound fills the room. It immerses the audience in the play in a way that a larger theatre couldn’t. In a brilliant stroke of innovation, Oracle uses large rolls of butcher paper and tempera paint for much of the set – simple but incredibly effective. A line of blue paint, followed by a stencil of the statue of liberty and then the word Chicago, represents their journey to America. At the meatpacking plant, where they butcher cattle, cows are stamped onto the butcher paper wall, then cut down with cleavers in a slash of red paint.
The cast of The Jungle gives strong performances, with Travis Delgado, Stephanie Polt, Drew McCubbin, and Thomas Wynne from the original cast, and DeChantel Kosmatka added for this remount. Nicholas Tonozzi’s msuic and Sam Allyn’s score increase the drama and intensity of the play.
The bleakness of The Jungle is almost unrelenting. I found myself wanting to distance myself from the characters because I knew it couldn’t end well. What hope there is, in the end, comes not for the individual characters but for the workers as a whole, who will eventually band together and form unions that will change society.
Sinclair is quoted as saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” While the image from the play of sickly green cows being chopped up for sausage turns my stomach, the horrors of it focus on the people exploited by the system, and it is all the more horrifying for the fact that The Jungle isn’t set in a fictional dystopia. This is part of the country’s history, and to some extent, elements of it live on. The Jungle is a short play, but it will stay with me for a long time to come.
Oracle Theatre – 3809 N. Broadway, Chicago
Running March 27 – April 25, 2015 (remount of 2014 production)
Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes