By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 1 hours and 35 minutes with no intermission
If I were to invite any deceased historic figure to dinner, Karl Marx would not have been my first choice. Actually, he probably wouldn’t have even crossed my mind but after experiencing Spotlighters Theatre latest offering of Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn and directed by Sherrionne Brown and starring Phil Gallagher, I think Mr. Marx could possibly make my Top Five (of whom currently includes Mozart, Joan Crawford, Karen Carpenter, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Disney, but I haven’t a clue of who would be bumped).
I admit… I walked in thinking this piece thinking it was going to be uber-political and argue the pros of Marxism and Communism and, with the political climate being what it is in the country at the moment, I rolled my eyes and settled in for the long haul. I can also admit my thinking was incorrect. Though this piece did touch on a many of Karl Marx’s ideas, it was not so much political as it was a piece showing Marx in a different light. He is usually thought of as a revolutionary, trouble maker, or rabble rouser but Zinn’s piece expressed his softer side; his life as a family man and his love and adoration for his wife and children (of which only three lived into adulthood). It shows a Marx who can admit when he is wrong and came back from the dead to express to the world that his ideas are different to the ideals of Communism that Lenin spouted out and that he wasn’t so stubborn that he couldn’t debate (sometimes heatedly) different ideas with friends and colleagues. Zinn manages to reveal Marx’s positive achievements rather than concentrate on the negative connotations of his life and work.
I certainly have my own ideals, politically and otherwise, as we all do, but I’m glad I was able to attend this production of Marx in Soho as it enlightened me, made me think, and reminded me that there are many different angles to folks that we must consider before passing any type of judgment. This piece wasn’t a lesson on Marxism or Communism, but a look into the life of a man who had his own ideas and way of looking at the world and his courage to express them, regardless of any adversity. Zinn manages to balance out the history and the entertainment in his script and it blends together beautifully.
Spotlighters is a unique space, to say the least. It’s theatre in the round, which is always challenging and to add to that challenge, they have four pillars on each corner of the stage of which they have to contend but Spotlighters has not disappointed, yet! The production teams for each show manage to use the space to maximum efficiency, and this production is no different. The Set Design by Director Sherrionne Brown is minimal, with a desk, a couple of chairs, and a stool, but it all comes together perfectly. It’s the set decorations of old photos of historic figures such and folks from Marx’s life add a sense of familiarity, like we’re sitting in Marx’s parlor or study, as a guest or old friend, listening to him as he talks about his ideas and writings.
Lighting Design by Fuzz Roark was very subtle but that’s exactly what is needed in this piece. His use of brightness levels are barely noticeable but add depth to the performance as the lighting seems to change with Marx’s changing moods from fiery revolutionist to loving husband and doting father and add great production value to the piece. The imitation thunder and lightning are perfect transitions and stop signs for the character of Karl Marx when he gets a little too saucy or political.
Director Sherrione Brown uses this space wisely and keeps her actor moving fluidly as to not ignore any part of the audience that surrounds him. Her guidance, along with the natural instincts of Phil Gallagher, brought Karl Marx to life right before my eyes and the nuances of the character, including the look, gestures, and facial expressions set me at east, as an audience member looking in. The Set Design complimented the performance and Brown is to be commended for her thought-provoking work on this piece.
Phil Gallagher as the titular character of Karl Marx is an absolute joy to watch. Performing in a biographical piece has its own set of challenges but Gallagher completely nails this role and gives an outstanding performance. From the moment he steps on stage, one cannot help but notice the striking resemblance Gallagher has to a young(er) Marx (a little different from the common white bushy bearded, older Marx). The Costume Design by Andrew Malone is spot on and very appropriate for the time in which Marx lived and for this piece. Gallagher is very comfortable both in his wardrobe and on the stage, having a strong command and he moves smoothly around making sure he gives attention to all sides of his audience. To be honest, Gallagher has completely changed the way I envisioned Karl Marx that was formed from what I’ve researched about him and from the stern photographs I’ve seen. Gallagher’s very authentic performance makes Marx approachable and downright likeable and though this may have something to do with the script, it is mostly because of the friendly feel I get from Gallagher. He is so natural in this role, there were many times I completely forgot there was a script involved. His German accent is on point and he, impressively, holds it throughout the entire performance, adding a realism to the performance. Gallagher seemed to have really understood the man he was portraying and it showed through in his strong, confident performance. Major kudos to Phil Gallagher for this exceptional performance as Karl Marx.
Final thought… Marx in Soho is a show that makes me see things from a different angle and appreciate another view. In these crazy times of this crazy United States Presidential election, I’m glad that I was reminded that this is very important. This piece portrays another side of a man who is commonly seen in a negative light and makes him more familiar and approachable. Whatever ideals you may have, Marx in Soho is an enlightening, provocative look into the life of a man who, in the end, just wanted the world to be a little better for everyone.
This is what I thought of this production of Marx in Soho.… what do you think?
Another point of view: The Bad Oracle’s review of Marx in Soho
Marx in Soho will play through September 18 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.