When you walk into a theater knowing the play you’re about to see is five hours long, you have to mentally prepare. You need to map out what you’ll do for each of the three intermissions strewn throughout the night. You need to plan to get coffee in case you start dozing off toward the end. You need to pay attention more than you have in any lecture you’ve attended.
For Goodman Theatre’s new play 2666, the elements of good theater were all there. Unfortunately, no amount of intermissions could give me enough stamina for the whole play. Based on a five-part book by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, 2666 takes the audience through multiple plots that intricately weave together. I didn’t read the book beforehand, but it was evident while watching the play that these intricacies would be better suited in a long-form novel than on a stage. Nonetheless, it was a daunting task for the Goodman crew to take on such a play. With flawless execution of lighting, sound and multimedia, each of the five parts had all the ingredients for a good play. Unfortunately, the five-course meal was too much for me to stomach in one night.
Held on Goodman’s Owen stage, the play traded in the traditional ground-level seating for tiered seating. While many of the Goodman’s previous Owen productions have audience members looking up to an elevated stage, 2666 had the audience looking down at the actors, as if they were gazing down into a storybook world.
The first part opens with four professors who bond over their love of a mysterious novelist, Benno Von Archimboldi. Three of the four take a trip to Mexico where Von Archimboldi is rumored to be staying. But when the professors are led to Ciudád Juarez — a Mexican city overrun with gruesome murders of young women — they can’t help but wonder why their beloved author would visit such a dangerous place.
This question that puzzles the professors is what drives the rest of the play, and I hate to break it to you, but you won’t find out the answer until the final moments.
Part One gives audience members the foundation for the rest of the play, but this part alone lasts one hour and 15 minutes. The details about the professors’ works, a commanding love triangle and an awkward threesome scene convoluted the play’s ultimate message. These minor details are not returned to in the end, but merely serve as background information. If I read the book, I would most likely be enthralled by numerous details, but for a play, the details took up too much time.
The following parts introduced new characters, and slowly throughout the night, the pieces fell into place. Each part had a unique set that was created with the utmost expertise. A countryside house, stinky bar and police office in Ciudad Juárez conveyed the rough city plagued with violent crimes. Extravagant furniture and long gowns portrayed 1940s Germany. And a white-tiled floor and purple curtain showed the modernity of current times the academics live in. Overall, the audience was taken all over the world and back in time with the detailed sets.
The production team also used a projector that aided the audience along with the plot. At times, the projector would solely be used and the live-action theater suddenly turned into a movie screening. Other times, the projector used images during the live action, which added a modern twist to the play but sometimes was distracting.
To write about every intricacy of the play would take far more than a couple of paragraphs. As images flash by in my mind about the experience, I can’t help but feel that 2666 wasn’t a home run. The New York Times called the play one of the most difficult novels to take to the stage, and I wholeheartedly agree. I acknowledge the effort, and Goodman never disappoints with its professional theatrics, but 2666 is simply not meant for theater.
Goodman Theatre’s (170 N. Dearborn St.) 2666 will run through March 20. Tickets are $25 to $51 and are available at goodmantheatre.org.