TimeLine Theatre Company Presents CAMPAIGNS, INC. Review – Election Year Mischief and Mayhem

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Before you even enter TimeLine Theatre’s performance space, the hallway leading in gives a sense of tumbling backwards through the decades. Dina Spoerl’s dramaturgical display full of old newspaper clippings, contemporary photos, and period decor seems to take you back all the way to a distant yet familiar moment when wealth inequality soared, women struggled for respect in the workplace, and political consultants spun fool’s gold from half-truths and smears. Welcome to America, 1934.

Witness the Birth of a New Kind of Politics

Will Allan’s Campaigns, Inc., now in its world premiere, drops the audience into the middle of the California governor’s race as democratic socialist Upton Sinclair (Anish Jethmalani) stands poised to end thirty-five years of Republican rule in the Sunshine State. That is, until Leone Baxter (Tyler Meredith) and Clem Whitaker (Yuriy Sardarov) walk into the office of incumbent Frank Merriam (Terry Hamilton) with a pitch to run a campaign the likes of which the nation has never seen before.

In contrast to Merriam’s office, opulent with fine carpeting, cushy chairs, and a great big American flag, Sinclair’s headquarters seems positively shoestring, a cramped little space with a card table for a desk. Scenic designer Sydney Lynne’s arrangement and prop designer Rowan Doe’s decoration of these two rooms at opposite ends of the stage heightens this contrast, foreshadowing how different the two men’s personalities and strategies will be.

Baxter and Whitaker’s office pops up between the two, mirroring the pair's transition from their first project together, a progressive one, to the conservative efforts that would make them famous. It’s a disheveled mess of papers and cigarettes as the two pull an all-nighter racking their brains to come up with a plan to back up their promises of victory. When Baxter – perennially the idea woman even as the men around her give Whitaker the credit – hits upon the notion of attacking Sinclair rather than attempting to lionize Merriam, it’s a revelation that will change politics in America forever.

History Comes Alive and Chemistry Crackles at TimeLine Theatre

In this author’s opinion, director Nick Bowling could not have gathered a finer cast to bring this story to life. From the ensemble to the leads, not a note is out of place. Jacqueline Grandt and David Parkes elevate each scene they’re in, whether as Hollywood power couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks giving feedback to Charlie Chaplin (Dave Honigman) as he pitches Modern Times or as Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR chatting with Sinclair over tea to decide whether to endorse him. Honigman himself is magnetic as Chaplin, a consummate entertainer and friend of Sinclair’s who is nevertheless hesitant to jeopardize his career by making a political endorsement.

Though Merriam and Sinclair never meet in the play, Hamilton and Jethmalani’s portrayals show them to be apt foils. Hamilton’s Merriam is ruthless, a bigoted, chauvinistic blowhard willing to compromise what few principles he has if it will get him another four years in office; even his lieutenant governor (Mark Ulrich) doesn’t hesitate to trash-talk him in private. Jethmalani’s Sinclair, on the other hand, is anxious to help people and unprepared for the brutality of negative campaigning. Yet when he finally makes a public speech – speaking from a podium at one end of the stage to a projected black-and-white crowd at the other, actual audience on either side – his stammering beginning gives way to a passionate declaration of ideals and a plan to fight poverty for all Californians.

Most critically, though, are Meredith’s Leone Baxter and Sardarov’s Clem Whitaker bringing all the chemistry you could ask for as the team behind the titular company. Whether cheering each other up, tearing each other down, or just passing a quiet moment together, the two consistently embody a complex, compelling relationship. Their fighting and flirting, brainstorming and bantering, are reminiscent of Princess Leia and Han Solo in Star Wars, or (to use a slightly more period-appropriate point of reference) Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story.

Artful Touches Enliven a Timely Tale

You too might think that one of the most effective elements of the production is Anthony Churchill’s projection design. From the opening introducing the story in the style of a 1930s movie trailer, to Baxter and Whitaker’s wickedly innovative use of paid actors in newsreels to smear Sinclair, to the epilogue explaining where all the major characters ended up, these displays enhance the show without taking away from the actors. This author could almost imagine what it might have felt like to the earliest movie-goers seeing comedy and drama acted out on the silver screen for the first time.

As fun and funny as Campaigns, Inc. is, Allan’s depiction of 1934 holds a mirror to our own moment nearly a century later. Just as Baxter and Whitaker ran what Sinclair called a Lie Factory, today we have claims of alternative facts and bad-faith accusations of fake news. Politicians find endless new ways to demonize each other, and it’s more difficult than ever to discern spin from truth. Names and faces may change, but TimeLine Theatre sends the audience off with one timeless lesson: keep your wits about you – and enjoy the ride.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Editor’s Note:  The author of this review is a personal friend of playwright Will Allan and has a keen professional interest in his work.

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Nick Bowling ~ + (Director)
Will Allan * + (Playwright)

Cast:

Tyler Meredith * (Leone Baxter)
Yuriy Sardarov (Clem Whitaker)
Jacqueline Grandt (Eleanor Roosevelt/Ensemble)
Terry Hamilton * ^ (Frank Merriam)
Dave Honigman (Charlie Chaplin)
Anish Jethmalani * + (Upton Sinclair)
David Parkes + (FDR/Ensemble)
Mark Ulrich * (George Hatfield)

Production Team:

Andrew Hansen ^ (Co-Sound Designer)
Maren Robinson + (Dramaturg)
Sydney Lynne (Scenic Designer)
Sally Dolembo # (Costume Designer)
Megan E. Pirtle (Associate Costume Designer and Co-Wig and Hair Designer)
Katie Cordts (Co-Wig and Hair Designer)
Jared Gooding (Lighting Designer)
Anthony Churchill (Projections Designer)
Forrest Gregor (Co-Sound Designer)
Rowan Doe (Properties Designer)
Sammi Grant (Dialect Director)
Miranda Anderson * (Stage Manager)
Alka Nayyar * (Associate Director)
Sam Kearns (Assistant Director)
Katrina Herrmann * (Stage Manager Sub)
Gianni Carcagno (Production Assistant/COVID Compliance Officer)
Dina Spoerl (Dramaturgical Display Designer)
Jessie Baldinger (Assistant Scenic Designer)
Teniyah Hall (Assistant Lighting Designer)
Franklin Barnes (Assistant Properties Designer)
Blake Currie (Assistant Dialect Director)
Emmanuel Jimenez (Scenic Supervisor)
Lucy Elkin (Costume Supervisor)
Mark Brown (Lighting Supervisor)
Averi Paulsen (Audio Supervisor)
Mia Thomas (Wardrobe Run Crew)
Mackenzie Moller (Marketing Consultant)

Understudies:

William Burdin (Charlie Chaplin and George Hatfield u/s)
Laurie Empen (Eleanor Roosevelt/Ensemble u/s)
Gabriel Fries (FDR/Ensemble u/s)
Paige Galdieri (Leone Baxter u/s)
Shane Rhoades (Clem Whitaker u/s)
Mike Rogalski (Frank Merriam u/s)
Ben Mathew (Upton Sinclair u/s)

* Member of Actors Equity Association
# Member of United Scenic Artists
~ Member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
+ TimeLine Company Member
^ TimeLine Associate Artist

WHEN:

Now through Sunday, September 25

Distanced Seating:

Thursday, September 1 at 7:30pm

Captioned Performance:

Friday, September 9 at 8:00pm
Saturday, September 10 at 4:00pm

Audio Described:

Friday, September 16 at 8:00pm
Saturday, September 17 at 8:00pm

Running Time:
Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes, with no intermission

WHERE:

TimeLine Theatre Company
615 West Wellington Ave
Chicago, IL 60657

TICKETS:

$42+

For more information and tickets visit the TimeLine Theatre Company website.

Photos: Brett Beiner Photography

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago.

Harold Jaffe

About the Author: Harold Jaffe

Harold Jaffe is a poet, playwright, freelance greeting card designer, and aspiring librarian. He earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College and studied poetry at Wellesley College under Frank Bidart and Alison Hickey. Since returning to Chicago, Harold has worked with Oracle Productions, Cave Painting Theater Company, the Old World Theatre Company, and Locked Into Vacancy Entertainment. He lives in Chicago with his wife Liana and their cat Paloma.

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