A very able Hank at center of 'Lost Highway'

"Hank Williams: Lost Highway"

Randal Myler and Mark Harelik's jukebox biodrama about the king of country music, back when it was still called "hillbilly music," displays most of the weaknesses that beset the form.

There's the awkward mixture of first-person monologues and you-are-there re-creations of key moments in the subject's life. There's the requisite revelatory-moment-in-the-recording-studio, in this case Hank Williams' collaborator/guru, Fred Rose, coming up with the band's choral echo in "Move It On Over." And, of course, there's the underlying tragedy of a life lived too fast, too hard, in the harsh glare of sudden fame.

Those weaknesses aren't convincingly overcome by Julie Ritchey and Omen Sade's Chicago premiere staging of "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" for Filament Theatre Ensemble. But, crucially, the piece provides a showcase for whomever steps into Williams' cowboy boots. And boy, howdy, does Peter Oyloe's Williams deliver the twangy-and-tortured goods.

From his lanky build (in the script, Williams' domineering mother describes him as being skinny enough to change clothes inside a shotgun barrel) to his feverish soulful eyes, Oyloe captures the lost man-child at the heart of "Lost Highway." Oh, and he can sing the hell out of the material. He's quite simply the best reason to see this show. But then, if you don't have star power at the center, it's really not worth doing.

Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is presented by Myler and Harelik as the songwriter's Holy Grail, whose creation haunts him most of his life. And it gets a tremendous performance here with Oyloe and the Drifting Cowboys — Jesse Woelfel, Sam Quinn, Eric Labanauskas and Tim McNulty.

The loneliness at the heart of the performing artist is of course well-worn territory. At one point Quinn's Jimmy points out on a fishing trip with Williams that, "The only place he's comfortable is out here in the middle of nowhere or out there (onstage), in the middle of everywhere." But Oyloe, though he's never quite as dissipated as one would expect for a man who began drinking in grade school, makes us believe that there is an aching void at the center of Williams' soul.

The book frustrates with its omissions and evasions. For example, Danon Dastugue as Mama Lilly disappears for most of the second act, which is kind of like Rose in "Gypsy" stepping out for a cigarette and not coming back. But though the story breaks down like a clunker from time to time, Oyloe's performance in this "Lost Highway" is pure classic Cadillac.

Through July 8 at Athenaeum Theatre, 2926 N. Southport Ave.; $24 at 773-935-6875 or filamenttheatre.org


Laudable ambition drives the Right Brain Project's staging of Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade." (We're not going to use the whole name; suffice it to say that it challenges Fiona Apple's album titles for verbosity.) Director Nathan Robbel has assembled a cast of 29, which is about five more people than can fit in the audience at the tiny and stifling space.

One can certainly understand the impulse to revisit Weiss' 1963 meditation on revolution and madness in an election year that arrives hard on the heels of the Occupy movement and last year's Arab Spring. Weiss' conceit, which was itself semi-revolutionary, was to stage the story of the 1793 murder of French Revolution leader Jean-Paul Marat at the hands of Charlotte Corday as a play-within-a-play, performed in 1808 at the Charenton Asylum, where the Marquis de Sade fights for his own individualism and spars with the revolutionaries.

Robbel's production, despite some fine performances (particularly Vincent Lonergan's de Sade and the quartet who perform the Brechtian choral numbers), never particularizes the story for our own historical moment, where apathy and alienation are at least as problematic as fear of official repression and reprisal. History certainly repeats itself, but the devil is in the telling details, each time. Right Brain's "Marat/Sade" doesn't drive the dagger in deep enough to reveal the gross anatomy of our own diseased body politic.

Through July 7 at RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave.; $25 at 773-750-2033 or therbp.org


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