Whether you like artist Tony Fitzpatrick’s play, “This Train”, or not will probably depend on your reaction to the playwright/performer. I must confess that I like this artist/actor/ poet/storyteller and soft-hearted mensch. His burly physique reminds me of the gruff and gritty working-class men I grew up among in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. His art also strikes a visceral chord in my consciousness. I’m mesmerized by his colorful collages: artwork overflowing with his personal symbology, poetic musings and memory-evoking old matchbook covers that pull me into a private, rapidly disappearing world.
For the next two weeks, Fitzpatrick has transferred his personal lamentation of a play to Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre. Like artist Julian Schnabel and designer Tom Ford who have turned to the medium of film, Fitzpatrick has laid down his pastels and taken up performance art.
While his tales are entertaining and held my interest throughout, their transfer to the stage falls short. The palpable power and coiled energy that I find in his collages gets diffused in the telling. Life may certainly be messy but true art is not.
While Fitzpatrick is a genuine storyteller who commands the stage, his pastiche of colorful characters and polemical rants is missing a coherent, organizing center. Instead, Fitzpatrick’s tale meanders about the railroads’ bloody journey westward, the environmental degradation it caused, the genocide it unleashed on Native Americans and the demise of hobos who once rode the rails. His guide to the “hobo alphabet” did provide insight into symbols he employs in his art. You sense that the evening’s main theme may be the tragic loss of America’s once-bright promise.
What works best are the flashes of nutty humor supplied by his neighbors and sidewalk hustlers as well as the musical interludes by singer/songwriter Kat Eggleston and guitarist John Rice. And Fitzpatrick’s homage to his friend and inspiration, Studs Terkel, is touching.
Fitzpatrick’s larger-than-life persona cannot be confined to a still canvas.
However, as with any good art, the material demands more defined shape and a greater edit of the extraneous than the play demonstrated. For now, my favorite Fitzpatrick remains hanging on the walls of major museums like the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“This Train” is a presentation of Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater and runs through Sunday, August 1st. The performance was directed by Ann Filmer, artistic director of 16th Street Theater, where it first appeared. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday evenings, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $22 and can be purchased at www.steppenwolf.org or by calling 312/335-1650.