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Theater Review:

Next Theatre’s "AMONG THE THUGS" at Goodman Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

When Next Theatre premiered Tom Szentgyorgyi’s "Among the Thugs" – based on Bill Buford’s book about U.K. soccer-fan violence in the 1980s -- in its mid-size Evanston space last year, the production pulsated with unpredictable rage. The actors snarled and chanted in a more confined performing area, which both magnified and tempered their characters’ inner demons.

Kate Buckley, Next’s artistic director, now has the opportunity to spread out the mob madness as she directs an even more bitterly ominous remount of "Among the Thugs" at the Goodman Theatre’s flexible Owen Bruner space. Scenic designer Rick Paul has reconfigured the performing arena so that audiences truly feel like they are in a stadium: huge gray concrete walls and steps that face viewers head on. The grand-scale sporting motif extends to the audience, who begin to feel as if they’re seated in bleachers.

Lindsay Jones creates a pre-show soundscape of a soccer radio broadcast – the familiar cheers of the crowd almost lulling us into a comfort zone. Then Jaymi Lee Smith’s battleship-gray lighting flashes to red before the action begins, and we know we’re in for a bloody brawl of a theater experience.

It’s thrilling to see such an energy-packed production in a theater that looks as if it could shrink and expand at will to achieve the director’s intense vision. Next Theatre is decidedly one of the Chicago area’s most intelligent, sophisticated and resourceful troupes that works wonders at its more intimate home in Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center. Now audiences can see Buckley’s creative acumen filling the Goodman’s new flexible space – and we can only hope that the high-profile Goodman exposure will garner more attention for the consistently outstanding Next Theatre.

That said, "Among the Thugs" – while not a flawless play – is an intriguing dissection of animalistic group behavior. And, although a script that attempts to over-analyze crowd-provoked brutality can grow a bit pedantic and repetitive, the astonishing physicality of the all-male cast reminds us how our deeply buried fury can blot out our civility the moment we sacrifice our individuality to the mob.

Buford, an American writer living in England, grew curious about the growing 1980’s phenomenon of "football hooligans," who were wreaking havoc on stadiums across the U.K. and Europe. At Heysel Stadium, a riot broke out during the World Cup match between Milan’s Juventus and Liverpool, causing a supporting wall to collapse and crush 38 Italian fans. Nearly 100 English "supporters" died from asphyxiation when a stampede occurred at the Hillsborough Stadium.

Besides problems inherent to the stadiums’ outdated structures, which could no longer handle the capacity crowds, Buford began to look at the whole sociopolitical spectrum of this male-dominated restlessness. He assumed the increased violence was related to poverty and unemployment. But as the author got sucked deeper into the lads’ heavy drinking and unquenchable thirst to do bodily harm, he realized these thugs were middle-class guys with decent jobs and families.

In playwright Szentgyorgyi’s adaptation of Buford’s book, he focuses on the character of Bill and his frustrated attempts to understand this confounding pattern of human behavioral shifts.

Most effective in Buckley’s smoldering direction is the sense that the nine soccer supporters move as one entity (enhanced by Birgitta Victorson’s movement direction and Robin McFarquhar’s tight fight choreography). But Bill – Christian Kohn reprising his role with an intriguing blend of curiosity, humor and repulsion – remains the outsider, even as he sells his journalistic soul to these drunken bands of malcontents.

While the pace is brisk yet measured, Szentgyorgyi’s script has a tendency to ramble in the second half – especially in Bill’s fiendish refusal to accept the fact that there may not be any answers. What does work is the chronic morphing of decent individuals into a crazed leviathan that strikes any innocent bystander in its path of blind rage. The play also makes it clear that massive consumption of alcohol is at the root of these soccer wars.

Most of Buckley’s original cast has returned, and they all demonstrate a kinetic agility and transformative prowess in multiple roles. Reprising their high-impact roles are Aaron Christensen, Dominic Conti, Scott Cummins, Eric Fraisher Hayes, R.J. Jones, Brad C. Light and Mark Vanasse. Scott Parkinson and Matt Kozlowski are fine new additions to the ensemble.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the real Bill Buford’s three years of immersive research is that he desperately tries to explain the inexplicable – and does not succeed. As a self-proclaimed objective journalist, he discovers that the truth is the most elusive aspect of our existence.•

Next Theatre’s remount of "Among the Thugs" runs through July 8 at the Owen Bruner Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $16-$37. Call 312-443-3800.

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