As historic types, Chicago aldermen do not lack for color. But despite the height of the bar for eccentricity on the City of Chicago's council, Ald. John Coughlin vaults over it with ease. In his time around the turn of the last century — a time shared with "Hinky Dink" Kenna and other characters you'll know and love if you've read Karen Abbott's "Sin in the Second City," Erik Larson's "Devil in the White City" or other chronicles of Chicago's famously decadent Levee district, Coughlin (aka "Bathhouse John") was an alderman for 46 years. He started out as a bathhouse scrubber and finished atop an empire of graft and protection as a "Lord of the Levee," to quote the late Herman Kogan.
Coughlin died in poverty. But before that, he took it upon himself to open a menagerie and amusement park near Cheyenne Canyon, Colo., replete with an elephant snagged from the Lincoln Park Zoo. In 1905, the Tribune reported on the escape of one of Coughlin's deer, which ran through Ivywild, a suburb of Colorado Springs and the name of the latest, rather confounding show at The Hypocrites.
As penned by Jay Torrence, the hugely promising "Ivywild" draws the logical conclusion that Coughlin funded his failed amusement park with the fruits of his various Chicago rackets. In its best moments, it explores the very interesting question as to why such a powerful man would sink his fate into such an eccentric enterprise. A sudden desire for bucolic redemption far from the Levee? A love of the tawdry? General aldermanic weirdness? What?
Alas, the play does not really say, partly because it gets trapped in its own devices to such a degree that what should be a fascinating central character disappears into his own show. "Ivywild," which is directed (overdirected) by Halena Kays, features a truly fascinating set from Lizzie Bracken. In one of the best off-Loop designs of the season, Bracken stuffs hundreds of colored lights and what feels like an entire carousel, not to mention other visual sculptures and accouterments, into the basement of the Chopin Theatre. It is spectacular and desperately pathetic, both at once.
If only the narrative trajectory of the show followed through on those inspired visual notions. Certainly, it is reasonable to tell Coughlin's story without overt realism, but, surely, here was a man of astounding contrasts: part Chicago alderman, part sad-sack P.T. Barnum, part Al Capone. Those edges are not drawn with any clarity in a piece that stars the energetic author (not a smart choice), who is very broad and invulnerable. Ultimately, the show gets played mostly for artsy laughs.
Despite the very honorable attempts of actors like Ryan Walters, Kurt Chiang, Tien Doman (playing, Lord help her, The Amusement) and Anthony Courser (who is just fantastic, and truthful, as Princess the elephant), the piece still can't enlighten or satisfy us as to why the music started at Bathhouse John's park and what made it, and him, come to a crashing stop.
When: Through June 16
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Tickets: $28 at 773-525-5991 or the-hypocrites.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times