Stacy Keach, returning to play the role of Ernest Hemingway he was slated to perform in a production of Pamplona at the Goodman Theatre last season, sits at a typewriter in frustration. It's an image director Robert Falls will return to throughout the 90-minute one-man show, and one Keach fills with trepidation and yearning each time he resumes the position. For in Pamplona, written by Jim McGrath, Hemingway is cornered, both literally and figuratively. In what will come to be the last year of his life, he is struggling to come up with the words to accurately express what he has witnessed in Spain covering a matador fight for Life magazine. But he is also cornered by the looming grey walls of Kevin Depinet's scenic design, which slope upwards to form a vertiginous prison for the writer. As McGrath's play unfolds, these walls will serve as canvases for Adam Flemming's projections to display past acquaintances of Hemingway using real-life photographs. Even towering over Keach, however, these pictures can't begin to match the stature of an actor who, at 77 years old, is crafting a performance that exemplifies the visceral connection that can be created between actor and audience.
Design Adds to Pamplona Star's Verisimilitude
While Keach's impressive performance as Oak Park-born writer Ernest Hemingway is bound to be one of the biggest draws of this production, Falls and his team of designers provide a rich world for Keach to inhabit. Depinet's set instantly transports you back in time, with textures that do double-duty conveying the wear of a Spanish hotel room and Hemingway's own fraying confidence in his ability to conquer writer's block. Noel Huntzinger's costume design also adds authenticity to the picture, while Jesse Klug's lighting hones in and out on Hemingway as he gives voice to his internal struggles and regrets. When coupled with Keach's full-bodied portrayal of one of America's literary giants, these elements serve to fully immerse you in Hemingway's history and personal crises.
Goodman Production Straddles Education and Entertainment
Part slice-of-life play, part internal monologue, and part biography, McGrath's script straddles multiple genres at once. Some moments, you are watching Hemingway struggle with a thesaurus as he searches for the perfect word. At other times, he's directly addressing the audience as he expounds upon his troubled upbringing and his disdain for his mother. Falls and Keach do plenty to make these shifts in content smooth, although to this writer, there were times when the biographical content in Pamplona began to feel more didactic than expository. Even so, audiences less familiar with Hemingway and his multiple marriages and run-ins with death will likely appreciate the inclusion of these details, which do serve to enrich the portrait of the author. In the end, Keach's unflagging performance makes Pamplona a worthwhile ticket, exemplifying the greatness of not only a Nobel Prize-winning author, but of an actor at the height of his career.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Stacy Keach (Ernest Hemingway)
Robert Falls (Director)
Jim McGrath (Playwright)
Kevin Depinet (Set)
Noël Huntzinger (Costumes)
Jesse Klug (Lights)
Michael Roth (Composer and Soundscape), Adam Flemming (Projections)
Lauren V. Hickman (Production Stage Manager)
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