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Performance Review:

"SALAO: THE WORST KIND OF UNLUCKY," Redmoon Theater at Chicago Shakespeare’s Upstairs Studio Theater on Navy Pier

BY LUCIA MAURO

Redmoon Theater’s latest "visionary spectacle" – "Salao: the worst kind of unlucky" -- conceived by Frank Maugeri takes its inspiration from Ernest Hemingway’s "The Old Man and the Sea." The fact that this robust seafaring tale about hope and meditative reflection is set at Chicago Shakespeare’s Upstairs Studio Theater, a few feet from Lake Michigan on Navy Pier, makes for a full-bodied and resonant experience.

But, even if we were not surrounded by real churning waters, "Salao" – under Maugeri’s and Jessica Thebus’ softly evocative direction – Redmoon is capable of drawing us into the mysterious pull of the sea and its mesmerizing effect on humankind since the beginning of time. Its resourceful, impeccable design is so authentic, you can almost smell the salty air. One does not view a Redmoon production as much as experience it in a non-self-conscious multisensory way.

At the center of this 70-minute puppet-based piece, structured as an oratorio, is the title Old Man – a life-size, bunraku figure designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock and Lisa Barcy. A short man with leathery wrinkled skin and eyes that register resolution and despair, he endows this production with its tenacious lifeblood.

The predominantly male ensemble – Shantymen, who sing music director Kevin O’Donnell’s chilling yet calming original sea shanties and manipulate the various puppets (including shadow and hand-operated birds and butterflies) – participate on equal footing with the "living" design. Chris Cinereski, Jesse Devine, Ryan Gardener, Gregory Hardigan, Blake Montgomery and Dale Rivera deliver non-cliched interpretations of rugged fisherman sharing in the Old Man’s quest to recapture his youth and finally achieve the catch of his long life. Their elegiac chants advance the work’s themes of memory and mortality.

Vocalist-musician Shu Shubat delivers a touching ballad of loss. She and her fellow live musicians, O’Donnell and Colin Burns, recreate the swish of breezes and crashing of waves, at the same time they craft a heart-pounding range of melodies.

Stephanie Nelson, master set and object designer, has proven yet again her exhilarating ingenuity. She is well paired with lighting designer Emil Boulos, whose whispers of a moonlit seascape is woven with suggestively nostalgic threads of sepia. The gorgeously weathered set of an American fishing town, anchored by a visual leitmotif of thick ropes and pulleys, is book-ended by two old houses, whose windows reveal shadow puppets at battle during the Old Man’s dreams.

Electric replicas of candlelight emerge from tiny tin boxes jutting from a worn clapboard backdrop. And the Old Man’s trusty wooden boat gets hoisted and tossed via bridge designer David Christopher Krause’s intricate 20-foot metal truss system – more impressive than the special effects for the latest "Star Wars" installment.

It is this seeming simplicity and willingness to leave room for the imagination to roam that make Redmoon such a visionary company. Most remarkable, the artists are capable of theatricalizing inertia. After all, the intrepid Old Man insists on rowing farther out into the sea to catch his prized fish. But he spends a lot of time waiting. While he waits, his life passes before him (beautifully illustrated as he "fishes out" portraits of a past love. And patience is the work’s overriding virtue. Yet the audience is engulfed in scintillating life.

When the Old Man finally meets his nemesis – a gorgeous fabric-wrapped marlin that shimmers with dazzling glass beads – he appears victorious, only to be thwarted by a trio of blood-thirsty sharks. The Old Man becomes indisputably and achingly real through the simplest of gestures – from sipping a tin cup of coffee to his sad leaning forward in the boat as it sways with an air of creaky futility. When he laments, "Can’t I buy some luck with two bleeding hands?," his pain tears at one’s very fiber.

We leave understanding the energizing power of poetic stillness.

After the performance, audience members are invited on stage to view the puppetry and set design up close.•

Redmoon Theater’s production of "Salao: the worst kind of unlucky" runs through June 8 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Upstairs Studio on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand. Tickets: $25. Call 312-595-5600 or log onto www.redmoon.org.

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