But how does their talent stack up against their competition?
If Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" comes to any conclusions down there in his basement after a lifetime of confusion, disappointment and hurt, after a good long spin on the racially painted American carousel of the mid-20th century, he finally spits them out at the end. "America," says this Mr. Cellophane, this strangely heroic anti-hero, "is made up of many strands. I would recognize it and let it so remain."
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Like so much in this singular, 600-page, 1952 novel — and now, at the Court Theatre in Chicago, a remarkable, 205-minute, must-see, three-act dramatic achievement adapted by the writer and filmmaker Oren Jacoby — that remark offers very good advice for anyone, say, staring with disbelief at the men who make up a presidential primary, or merely trying to deal with a neighbor of a diffrerent stripe.
Of course, you can also see the invisible man's position as cynical and self-protective, unsympathetic to the timeless truth that struggles are always necessary to effect change. But then the late Ellison's vision was as complex as his experience. Wisdom spouts from every funnel in a great novel in which one hopes this show, the first-ever authorized dramatization, will rekindle interest from New York and Hollywood. "It's impossible not to take advantage of the people," one of Ellison's creations remarks, clearly speaking for the author. "The trick is to take advantage of them in their own best interest."
Good luck finding a politican who'll admit that truth.
That rich socio-political landscape positively throbs from the Court Theatre stage in Christopher McElroen's unstinting and intensely crafted production, which sets apart the title role from an ensemble of actors playing those who enter his orbit, and that offers a veritable feast of visual pleasures. You are constantly encouraged to look into the shadows at the side of Troy Hourie's endlessly fascinating setting and discover who is watching whom. Along with tantalizing light and projections from John Culbert and Alex Koch that play out America's racial ferment — luminous intensity alternates with confounding shadows — McElroen's production has the benefit of a magificent central performance from Teagle F. Bougere that deftly captures the tonal complexity with which Ellison imbued his alter ego: a young black man who takes an epic, push-pull journey from college in Alabama to professional organizer in Harlem, and from idealistic surge to stoic retreat.
It's a hugely empathetic performance from an actor who clearly understands he's playing an African-American everyman, buffeted by forces, switching endlessly from positive to negative, without regard to the race of the influencer. Bougere shows us a man who finally learns he cannot control the acts of others, even as the lesson comes with great personal pain. Yet there's nothing showy or romantic about what Bougere is doing; his character is not an idealization but an ordinary, flawed man never far from retreat. Bougere reveals all that and more. It's a tonally adroit performance that one fiercely hopes will get its just development and desserts.
Jacoby's work is remarkably faithful to the source, which is no mean feat. The script needs a further edit and, frankly, a tad more independence from the novel. The third act is disproportionally long and, in both Act 2 and Act 3, we need a better sense of the Invisible Man being propelled back underground with a dramatic force that currently seems to dissipate just when the demands of any dramatization require it to intensify.
Some scenes don't yet work as they could: the surreal sequence following the explosion in the paint factory (where the Invisible Man finds himself splattered with white paint) does not make sense with the whole. And, yet more seriously, one of the key emotional moments in the piece, the death of a Harlem organizer named Tod Clifton, does not carry enough focus. Jacoby will need to take another hard look at what to streamline and leave out, while teasing out yet more of a dramatic throughline. But the hard work is already done. Jacoby is demonstrably unafraid of his unyielding source.
Court's ensemble cast has some similar gut-wrenching moments, many of which come from Kenn E. Head, whom McElroen deftly uses as a kind of moral conscience of the piece. Lance Stuart Baker offers a most compelling turn as a self-loathing young rich man whom the Invisble Man meets along the way; the aptly dangerous Julia Watt personifies a bevy of white, female, sexual temptations; and A.C. Smith rises up to play many of the black leaders whom our man, it turns out, cannot trust. Paul Oakley Stovall, Bill McGough, Tracey N. Bonner, Chris Boykin and Kimm Beavers all have excellent scenes, even though at times you wish that McElroen (a director of great imagination making an overdue Chicago debut) had just a few more actors at his disposal, allowing him to add spectacle and ensure race-specificity in a piece, frankly, that demands it.
Still, this is a remarkable piece of made-in-Chicago theater that deserves to attract national attention and will, for sure, thrill and inspire Ellison's fans, even as it slightly confounds those new to the novel. That dichotomy could and should be fixed by these capable creators. The theater is a distinct medium, and Ellison has a lot more to teach us all.
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or couttheatre.org.
In their professional opinions, the Packers clearly are still the class of the division. The Bears have the second best team, barely, over the Lions.
"It's going to be a real good division," one player personnel director said.
Four were given for a position group that was best in the division; three for second best; two for third best and one point for worst.
Here is how each team ranked at each position.
1. Packers (20); 2. Bears (13); 3. Lions (12); 4. Vikings (5);
Each of the five personnel men thought the Packers had the best quarterback, but they were split on who was second best. Three of them chose the Bears' Jay Cutler and two picked the Lions' Matthew Stafford.
Some of the pro-Cutler comments:
•"Stafford is gaining on Cutler, but Cutler gets the benefit of the doubt because he has done it more years in a row."
•"Stafford has Megatron (Calvin Johnson) to throw to, and just has to get it out to him. Cutler has had to make smart decisions and accurate throws on a consistent basis. He hasn't had the dominant receiving weapons until now."
And some pro-Stafford comments:
•"They are equally athletic in terms of escaping pressure, but Stafford is more accurate, and he has gotten it done without a running game."
•"Stafford won't make as many bad decisions."
1. Vikings (20); 2. Bears (15); 3. Lions (9); 4. Packers (6).
The personnel men voted as if Adrian Peterson, who is coming off a knee injury, will be healthy and as capable as ever. Each of them had the Vikings best and the Bears second best. The only question was if the Lions or Packers are third.
The Lions have more talent, but Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure are coming off injuries and Leshoure is facing a two-game suspension.
"It seems you never are sure who is available for the Lions," one front office man said. "Who knows with that group?"
1. Packers (19); 2. Lions (16); 3. Bears (10); 4. Vikings (5).
The acquisition of Brandon Marshall failed to move the Bears into the top two because the Packers and Lions both are stacked.
"Even with Marshall, the Bears receivers leave something to be desired," one scout said.
Another pro personnel man had a different take.
"If they had Johnny Knox healthy, the Bears would have a really strong receiver group," he said.
Despite the presence of Johnson for the Lions, probably football's best receiver, the Packers were given four of five first-place votes.
"The Packers have more depth than anyone," a personnel man said.
1. Lions (20); 2. Packers (14); 3. Vikings (11); 4. Bears (5).
The personnel men were unanimous that the Lions had the best group and the Bears the worst.
One said, "The top three in the division are almost a tie. The Bears group isn't as good."
1. Packers (19); 2. Lions (16); 3. Vikings (8); 4. Bears (7).
"This position is where the talent falls off in the division," an assistant pro personnel director said.
Indeed, each of these lines has question marks. Even the Packers, who received four first-place votes, lost two starters and are not sure who their left tackle will be.
"Aaron Rodgers makes that line look good by getting rid of ball, but the run blocking is not impressive," one scout said.
Two of the five polled said they would not be surprised to see significant improvement in the Bears' offensive line.
"I really think it's a decent group of players that got a bad rap," the assistant director of pro personnel said.
1. Lions (20); 2. Vikings (13); 3. Bears (12); 4. Packers (5).
Voters were split between the Vikings and Bears as to which team was second best, but each of the front office men had praise for the top three lines.
"If Chicago's young guy (Shea McClellin) comes through, the Bears can give Detroit a run," one pro personnel man said.
Another cited the need for Bears defensive linemen other than Julius Peppers to step up and make plays.
1. Bears (18); 2. Packers (15); 3. Lions (10); 4. Vikings (7).
Of the nine area graded (excluding special teams and coaching), the Bears scored highest here, and it was the only position in which the Bears were ranked first.
There were mixed opinions, however. The Packers and Lions linebackers each received a first place vote.
"Given the age of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, I'm not quite sure how to judge them," a personnel director said. "It's close between them and the Packers."
1. Packers (19); 2. Lions (15); 3. Bears (11); 4. Vikings (5).
There is more uncertainty here in the NFC North than at any other position. One front office man said he wouldn't be surprised if the rankings completely flipped during the season.
The Packers likely will use cornerback Charles Woodson at safety more this year, and the Vikings hope to start rookie Harrison Smith.
"Chris Conte and Major Wright are solid players for the Bears," one pro personnel man said. "They are smart, tough and can run. They might be limited in some areas of the passing game, but Chicago uses them well."
1. Packers (19); 2. Bears (15); 3. Vikings (11); 4. Lions (5).
The Packers came in first place even though Woodson likely will spend more time at safety and the team finished 32nd in pass defense last year, which does not say much about cornerback talent in the division. None of the NFC North teams were in the top 21 of pass defense.
The Bears received one first place vote.
"The Packers have better talent, but the Bears corners played better as a group," he said. "The Bears protected their corners better with that zone scheme, and eliminated big plays better than the Packers."
1. Bears (19); 2. Packers (15); 3. Vikings (11); 4. Lions (5).
The Bears received four first-place votes. The man who placed them second cited the loss of Knox as a kick returner. Another scout voted the Bears first, but said he thought "their return game could fade."
1. Packers (19); 2. Bears (16); 3. Lions (10); 4. Vikings (5).
Every ballot was the same except one, in which a personnel assistant ranked the Bears first, ahead of the Packers.
"Lovie Smith has had to deal with quarterback issues, job speculation and inconsistencies that Mike McCarthy has not," he said.
Another front office man voted the Bears staff second but said, "Lovie does a nice job. He is steady and that is a team that is well coached, well prepared and ready to play."
One more noted the Packers "took a shot losing Joe Philbin, but McCarthy can overcome it."
1. Packers (170); 2. Bears (141); 3. Lions (138); 4. Vikings (101).
What was impressive about the vote for the Packers is they finished first in six of 11 categories, including the two most would say are most important — quarterbacks and coaches.
The conclusion to draw is that as impressive as the Bears are on paper, they still are not the most impressive team in their division.