April 2, 2007

Review: The Silence of Malachi Ritscher

The Silence of Malachi Ritscher
a play by the theater group Theater 5.2.1
written by Kevin Kilroy, directed by Lewis Lain

On November 3, 2006, Malachi Ritscher, a musician and political activist, doused himself with gasoline and burned himself to death in protest against the War in Iraq.

The protest evoked similar immolation protests undertaken during the Vietnam War, which at the time garnered immediate and widespread media coverage. But Ritscher's protest garnered very little attention or media coverage at first, for a variety of ostensible reasons: avoiding similar copycat actions, or the hostility of major American media to any kind of dissident protest.

In the weeks and months after Malachi Ritscher's suicide, coverage in the news media in Chicago and worldwide increased markedly, galvanized to a significant degree by an activist campaign called I Heard You, Malalchi.

Coverage in various media continues still; in the works are a documentary film about Ritscher and a jazz album dedicated to Ritscher by a group of American musicians. But perhaps the first "creative" work about Malachi Ritscher and his final protest debuted at the Theater Building Chicago on March 23, 2007--a play by the theater group Theater 5.2.1, written by Kevin Kilroy and directed by Lewis Lain, named The Silence of Malachi Ritscher.

Even though Malachi Ritscher was 52 years old when he committed suicide, the play depicts Ritscher when he was a young man, presumably in Chicago , and presumably in his twenties or so, as part of a young couple before having a child. This doesn't mesh with the chronology of Ritscher's life, since he didn't move to Chicago until the early 1980s, by which point he already married and had a son. Nevertheless, as the play makes clear: "The Silence of Malachi Ritscher is a work of fiction based off the life and actions of Malachi Ritscher."

We see vignettes of Ritscher (played by Michael Salinas), referred to by his given first name "Mark", devoted to his interests in music and radical politics. His wife, Kathy, played by Cynthia Blakewell, becomes pregnant in the course of the play, and chastises her husband for spending too much time on his interests and not holding a steady job, nor being more of a family man.

Despite the serious issues raised by Ritscher's death, the locale of most of the play's scenes seems to be ordinary: in a household, with the neighbors, and at a nearby bar. There doesn't seem to be any clear buildup to the climax to come, though throughout the play allusions occur on occasion in reference to the end of Ritscher's life. There are several bar scenes where Rtischer's death and the nature of political involvement are topics of discussion. There is also a scene where the young Ritscher encounters the Ritscher of the future --the one who burns himself to death.

I found myself unenthused to a degree by this juxtaposition of the ordinary with little buildup to the extraordinary. But I could see how this juxtaposition reflects life, generally, and Ritscher's life in particular. You live your life, and then all of a sudden you hear that something unbelievable happens out of the blue. In this case, someone--maybe someone you know-- commits a dramatic suicide for potent political reasons. Life isn't always so neatly packaged into the traditional dramatic sequence of buildup, climax, and denouement, and this play tried to reflect that truth.

What did grab my attention most about this play was not anything in the play itself, but rather what the performers and playwright plan to do after the play's run ends on Saturday, April 21, 2007. On that evening, they plan to burn the script at a script burning party at Joey's Brickhouse (1258 W. Belmont) across the street from the Theater Building , with a vow NEVER to perform again The Silence of Malachi Ritscher.

I'm not sure that I agree with this tactic. On one hand, it is something that certainly grabs attention, which one can argue is the whole point. But then again, there is too much destruction and too many things that are ephemeral in this world, which is why the script should be kept, preserved and promoted. After all, if one point of making this play is to spread the word of what Malachi Ritscher did, then destroying the script and condemning the play's performance to a certain end would be counterproductive.

Then again, the life and death of this play may to some extent mimic that of Malachi Ritscher--except that the coming death of this play has been announced and advertised in a way that Ritscher's never was.

Obviously, and unfortunately, there's no hope of a revival for this play, but then again neither is there hope of a revival for Malachi Ritscher himself. With these passings, perhaps others can learn something, do something, and contribute. So, carpe diem. See this play while you still can, and get involved in other ways. You'll never get this chance again.