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THEATER REVIEW Churchill
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2014-08-13

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Playwright: Ronald Keaton. At: SoloChicago Theater at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-404-7336; boxoffice@greenhousetheater.org; $25-$35. Runs through: Sept. 14

Despite our professed love of democracy, we Yanks are even more enamored of monarchies, with their promise of destinies determined by luck and lineage. This tendency to mythologize our Anglo-Saxon ancestors may explain why playwrights so frequently balk at the contradictions of Winston Churchill, whose historical importance in the 20th century is as undisputed as its sheer volume renders it difficult to document.

He was born in 1874, son to the Duke of Marlborough. As a young graduate of Sandhurst, he served with a cavalry regiment, engaging in saber combat on horseback ( ! ) against tribal chieftans in colonialist India. During World War I, he commanded a field battalion and invented the armored tanks that helped the allies to victory. Later, when England waged war against Hitler, his military savvy led to his appointment by the King to oversee his country's strategic operations. In peacetime, he held various government offices and was twice elected prime minister. He was also a foreign correspondent, writing of his adventures even as he experienced them.

So is this man who lived so many lives before dying at the age of 90 best portrayed as a romantic Victorian buck, a trench-hopping newshound, a grim-faced general or the cigar-puffing politician most often recalled today? For this one-person play, Ronald Keaton introduces his subject in 1946, still suffering depression after being voted out of Parliament following the end of WW II, but exhilarated at having been invited by U.S. President Truman to speak at a small Missouri college on Western relations with Russia—little knowing, as he reviews the speech he has prepared for the occasion, that he will, on the morrow, coin the term "Iron Curtain" for all posterity.

However gloomy its premise, this is no dry fact-choked schoolroom lecture. Assisted by Paul Deziel's projections that locate us in time and place, Keaton has authored a brief glimpse of the "British Bulldog"—100 minutes with an intermission—rich in the acerbic wit and stirring rhetoric that renders Churchill's aphorisms quoted to this day. As a performer, Keaton's 30 years as one of Chicago's favorite character actors enables his transformation into the portly, intrepid, whisky-swilling Brit whose vocal delivery evidences the self-educated orator adept at staking out his territory in the "wilderness of politics" he chose to explore. Under the deft direction of Kurt Johns, the results constitute an auspicious debut for the newly-founded SoloChicago Theatre series.


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