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Hard lives of itinerant actors, junkies on display in ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Pigeon House’

John Mossman (from left) Katherine Schwartz BarbarFiggins star  Seanachai Theatre Company's producti'In PigeHouse.'

John Mossman (from left), Katherine Schwartz and Barbara Figgins star in Seanachai Theatre Company's production of "In Pigeon House."

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♦Through Dec. 2

♦ Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

♦ Tickets, $32.50

♦ (773) 975-8150;



♦ Through Nov. 18

♦ Seanachai Theatre at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee

♦ Tickets, $26-$30

♦ (866) 811-4111;

Updated: October 24, 2012 6:08PM

Heroin addicts in the contemporary Midwest, and traveling players in Ireland and England over many decades. Let it never be said that Chicago theater doesn’t run the gamut of human experience, or have something for everyone. Here’s a look at two recently opened productions that suggest the range — the premiere of “Trainspotting USA” (a new American take on the Scottish-bred novel and film) and the world premiere by Seanachai Theatre of “In Pigeon House”:

I confess: “Trainspotting,” the hit 1996 film based on Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh’s look at a group of young heroin addicts in an economically stagnant section of Edinburgh in the late 1980s, was one of the very rare movies I’ve actually walked out on. Sorry, but I really didn’t need to see a wasted young heroin addict plunge his arm deep into a revolting, vomit-and-excrement-filled toilet bowl, even if he was in search of just-expelled opium suppositories that were supposed to dull the pain of withdrawal.

So here’s a surprisinging turnaround: I was entirely transfixed by the production now at Theater Wit, where that same scene is being played out in “Trainspotting USA,” the show adapted for the stage by Harry Gibson, and “directed and re-adapted onto the American landscape,” by Tom Mullen (with new material by Welsh).

Why? Despite being every bit as graphic, it is part of an altogether riveting 90-minute piece of theater that feels far less exploitative and sensational than the film, and far more poignant and achingly real. Mullen’s direction is darkly balletic, and his cast of six terrific actors careen through their characters’ pain-and-violence-filled lives.

Now set in Kansas City, Mo., rather than Edinburgh, the sense of twentysomething sex, drugs, alienation, rebellion, failure, immaturity and self-destruction remain much the same, with talk of big box stores and malls replacing that of video stores and bookshops, and a prescription drug bust on the Mexican border underlining the geographical switch.

At the center of it all is Mark (a superbly shaded performance by Shane Kenyon), a smart guy who tries any number of times to get clean, but repeatedly falls back into his bad habits. His “pals” include the decent but dim-witted Spud (Cameron Johnson); the quasi-intellectual, Simon (Rian Jairell); the thoughtful, drug-avoiding Tommy (a powerful turn by Jay W. Cullen) and the dangerously psychopathic Begbie (Thad Anzur), all spot-on. Leggy actress-dancer Jenny Lamb is a knockout in all the female roles, playing everything from an addicted mother, to a fabulously “athletic” cheerleader, to a sexually-charged “underage” teen and more.

“Trainspotting” is not for the kids or the easily offended. Yet in its frankness and vividness, this harrowing, straightforward portrait of addiction might well be one of the more potent cautionary tales around. It also is burn-the-floor theater.

Art most definitely imitates life in Honor Molloy’s play, “In Pigeon House,” now receiving its world premiere by Chicago’s Seanachai Theatre. A multilayered history of the invariably rough-and-tumble, penniless and often brutal existence of itinerant Anglo-Irish performers throughout the 20th century, its quartet of time-shifting characters moves from squalid bedsits to the stage and screen.

Along the way they engage in bits of vaudeville, clowning and music hall numbers, and are seen in some 1920s movies (which years later show up on the telly). Then, we even fast forward to some scuzzy rock clubs where porno meets performance art. There also are echoes of Sean O’Casey, and James Joyce (just listen to the finale) and Samuel Beckett (a mock play titled “Man in the Box”), with the real life sequences — which are sometimes difficult to separate from the theatrical scenes — liberally laced with the cliches of both Irish life (from endless babies and feckless men, to both illiteracy and linguistic delights), and show biz (it’s all about “the art” and a desperate escape from dreary reality).

Molloy (who may be best known as the author of the autobiographical novel, “Smarty Girl — Dublin Savage”), has taken an ambitious approach to her subject, jump-cutting frequently in terms of time, temper and medium. It’s not always easy to decipher exactly what is going on (and there are thick accents and lots of local lingo, to boot). But under the exuberantly athletic direction of Brian Shaw (a founding member of Plasticene, the now defunct but hugely innovative physical theater company), the four expert actors give us intensely vivid portraits of performers who operate on the fringe of society.

John Mossman is fleet and chillingly sinister as Basher, the veteran leading man who can rant about how another comic stole his material, bluntly tell a younger actor to “work the bog out of your mouth” (ie., lose your Irish accent), and kick the stuffings out of a woman. As Rasher, Ira Amyx brings all the hapless hopefulness and horniness of a rube to his theatrical efforts. Katherine Schwartz easily lights up the stage as Dolly, and is equally convincing as both a pert dairy manager and practiced vixen. (Her dramatic piece about cows slaughtered in a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak is a gem.) And as Masher, Barbara Figgins is the character actress who in old age is bedazzled by the technology that enables her to watch her younger self on film.

As for the actors of Seanachai, Chicago’s Irish-based theater troupe, they are more than familiar with the vicissitudes of the itinerant life, but their new performance space at The Den is just right for this show.

One word of warning: Any actor with a makeup box might just want to check their lipsticks for hidden pins. I will explain no further.

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