"Riders of the Purple Wage" Newspaper Reviews

A play adapted and directed by Arnold Aprill from the story by Philip Jose Farmer, with scenery by Tom Bachtell, costumes by Faye Ward Fisher, lighting by Tom Hase, sound by David Kodeski, special effects by Jim Janacek. Opened Nov. 29 in a City Lit Theater Company production at Live Bait Theatre, 3914 N. Clark St., and plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 14. Running time: 2:05. Tickets are $14 and $16. Phone 312-271-1100.

By Albert Williams
First appeared in: Chicago Sun-Times, Dec 5 1989

When Philip Jose Farmer wrote the novella Riders of the Purple Wage in 1967, the sexual revolution was still in adolescence, and no one had heard of AIDS. Public mentions of abortion and contraception were taboo. Television was dominated by three commercial networks. Drugs were confined to the fringes of society. And the National Endowment for the Arts was just a couple of years old.

Today, ideas that seemed far out 22 years ago are part of our daily life, exaggerated only slightly for satiric effect in City Lit Theater's stage version of Farmer's novella. Government-sponsored birth control, omnipresent two-way TV with limitless channels (called Fido), widespread use of artificial pleasure inducers and politically influenced grants for avant-garde artists (the "purple wage" of the title) - Farmer's visions of Beverly Hills in the 23rd century seem very familiar in City Lit's staging, running through Jan. 14 at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark. (Tickets: 271-1100.)

The hero of "Riders" is a "neo-primitive" painter named Chibiabos Elgreco Winnegan.

Chib, portrayed as a punky kid with a lean and hungry look by Steve Emerson, is troubled by his dominating mama (played as a grossly fleshy human puppet), hung up on his pregnant girlfriend, tormented by corrupt critics and hype-happy hangers-on, and guided erratically by his rascally great-great-grandfather, an "ancient marinator" who bears a strong resemblance to Walt Whitman.

City Lit's adaptation of Farmer's story, though generally faithful, drags down the writer's flights of fancy with an all-too-earthbound production. Eric Barnes' original songs, in styles spoofing Cole Porter and Gilbert and Sullivan, enliven the proceedings somewhat, but seem unconnected to the script. And Arnold Aprill's direction of the young, 11-member cast is filled with clunky movement, cluttered blocking and uncertain intentions.

Weakest of all is the show's attempt at bringing to life Farmer's bawdy and freewheeling comedy.

Instead of the anarchic and ambisexual exuberance of the 1960s youth rebellion that inspired Farmer's satire, Aprill and his design team - Tom Bachtell (sets), Faye Fisher-Ward (costumes), Thomas C. Hase (lights) and Jim Janacek (special effects) - have created cute, colorful, unchallenging images that could have stepped right out of the MTV-style commercials that glut Saturday morning TV kids' shows.

And despite some energetic individual performances by Donna Jerousek as a fortune-teller, David Ward as a babbling cultural commentator and Robb Williams as a venomous power broker, the actors' efforts at sexual satire come off about as daring as an episode of "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

"Artists should be allowed freedom of expression," declares one character in the play, "so long as they stop upsetting everyone."

But City Lit's mild staging isn't likely to upset anyone - so it misses the point.

By Richard Christiansen, Entertainment editor
First appeared in: Chicago Tribune, Dec 5 1989

Everyone in "Riders of the Purple Wage" appears to be having a very good time in City Lit Theater's adaptation of Philip Jose Farmer's science-fiction satire. Unfortunately, it takes too long before their raucous, bumptious merrymaking lets the audience in on the fun.

Farmer's 1967 story, much revered in sci-fi circles (of which I am not a member), takes place in the television-dominated, post-Orwellian world of A.D. 2189, but its central, overheated concern-the dilemma of an independent artist trying to maintain his integrity in the face of financial necessity and critical frippery-is essentially timeless.

Chibiabos Elgreco Winnegan, Farmer's rebel hero, is a young painter beset by several problems, many of them stridently sexual: a whorish mother who fools around (and tap dances), a bosomy girlfriend who wants to abort their child and a flamingly gay critic who offers a favorable review in exchange for sex.

Buttressing Chib's resolve, however, is his beloved 120-year-old great-great grandfather Winnegan (Cameron Pfiffner, smoking a cigar and wearing red, white and blue undershorts), a crusty codger on the run from government spies who encourages his protege to follow his heart.

Decked out with outrageous costumes and ingenious props, "Wage" takes almost a full act before it defines its world and finds direction for its plot. Even then, much of the atmosphere is murky and too much of the performance is over-the-top campy, as if amateurishness had been equated with zestfulness.

Innumerable bad puns and obscure literary references lard the text, and every once in a while hints of the complex financial and social structuring of Chib's world surfaces in bits and pieces.

The actors act as if they know what's going on in this mad scramble. Steve Emerson is a lanky, likable Chib, and in the swirling supporting cast, Betsy Freytag has some loud-mouthed fun as a Tarot card-reading hoyden.

Some of the production's happiest touches come from its musical number inserts, harmoniously sung and neatly danced by the cast. The music and lyrics are by Eric Barnes, and they're so clever that they make one want to hear more.