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BOOK REVIEW Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater
by MacKenzie Murtaugh
2019-10-16

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Author: Mark Larson $13; Lethe Press; 243 pages

Chicago has proven itself many times over that it is multifaceted. It is a Midwestern diamond, a lake city, a food hotspot, the foundation of house music. The two American coasts might underestimate its other face, and that is its influence on theater and its considerable history in the United States. This is the conversation that Mark Larson's book "Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater" attempts, and, overall, it succeeds.

As the title suggests, the book is told entirely through quotes of notable and influential people who have something to say about Chicago theater, like Michael Shannon, Julia-Louis Dreyfuss, Laurie Metcalf, among many others. Larson interviewed more than 300 subjects in preparation for this book, and the time and effort he put into curating this book is not something to overlook. But, with the number of interviews and people and topics, the information presented becomes overwhelming if the reader is not familiar with Chicago's theater community already. Some more context in the form of short blurbs at the beginning of each chapter or something else entirely would create a more pleasant reading experience for those with less theater knowledge than the book's intended audience—theater junkies and those already in the industry.

The standout part of the book begins deep into the history lesson in Part Four: Theater Making in the Time of AIDS. An undeniably tragic and touchy issue of AIDS in the 1980s changed how LGBTQ+ communities operate in every space. Larson focuses on how the artistic and creative space took this tragedy as an opportunity to ensure information about the crisis was being spread. Theater houses and storefront spaces held meetings in their lobbies and gave brochures out to each attendee at LGBTQ+ performances in order to raise awareness of the crisis and what LGBTQ+ people can do to both keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

But the reality is that many were not safe, no matter how fast information spread. An entire chapter is dedicated to Scott McPherson's influence on the LGBTQ+ experience of loss in the 1980s with his play Marvin's Room, which opened at the Goodman Theatre in 1990. Soon after it made its way to New York, McPherson's partner, activist Danny Sotomayor, died of AIDS complications. After that, McPherson died the same way later that year ( 1992 ). Here, the oral nature of the book is masterful, as many of McPherson's closest friends and colleagues remember him through small, emotional stories, both fun and melancholic.

This book is the best fit for those who are already experienced in the world of theater and are looking for an all-encompassing, emotional and well-researched piece of literature on the subject. For those who are simply interested in non-fiction and history, regardless of the topic, you might find yourself struggling to put the pieces together. In all, this impressive work shines an important light on the various topics, both related to sexuality and society, in the theater world that deserve to be talked about and understood.


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