Local theater could use a boost these days, with companies large and small still reeling from the pandemic and facing an uncertain future. If you can’t get to a live production, your best bet is to pick up Richard Engling’s sparkling new comic novel about Chicago storefront theater, Give My Regards to Nowhere (Polarity Ensemble Books, 2023 – also available in audiobook, read by the author).
Engling, a longtime Evanstonian, is our ideal backstage guide. The founder and artistic director of Chicago’s Polarity Ensemble Theatre for more than a decade, he is also an actor, the author of two published novels and a playwright whose work has been produced internationally. Polarity Ensemble, which ran from 2004 to 2018, was known for its innovative contemporary stagings of Shakespeare and its Dionysus Cup festival of new plays, which supported the creative growth of local playwrights. Engling’s love for theater and wry awareness of its flaws are evident on every page of Give My Regards.
Subtitled “a director’s tale,” the story follows six months in the life of Dwayne Finnegan, a theater director with a fabulous production idea: a high-octane staging of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus that will take Chicago audiences by storm, and may win Dwayne a shot at acceptance into the Emerging Directors’ Program at New York’s Public Theatre. If only Dwayne can get its head, Gregor Foxx, to see his show, he could be on his way to a Real Career in the Big Apple.
‘Titus’ an unlikely choice
Titus Andronicus hardly seems a suitable premise for a comic novel. A gruesome revenge tragedy penned early in Shakespeare’s career, the play includes scenes of rape, mutilation, mass murder and a climactic cannibal feast that embodies bad taste. But Engling has used this unlikely source to show how a great director – even if he comically bumbles 90% of the time – can make dramatic gold out of a work of lead. Queasy racial politics? Attack them head-on with racially conscious casting. Tedious ancient Roman setting? Make it new with dance, a Jimi Hendrix-style band and psychedelic lighting.
Our hero gets his two best friends to invest – they’re richer than he is, and anyway, everyone likes getting some show-business fairy dust sprinkled on them – and puts up his own savings on a risky wager that he will get the Emerging Director spot. Dwayne scouts out one dingy theater space after another, while trying to hold on to mindless temp jobs and manage cast and crew members of various levels of craziness.
In classic comic fashion, everything that can go wrong does, keeping the reader continuously laughing, entertained and in suspense. Dwayne’s producer and star actor deserts him for Hollywood. Coco, the charismatic diva playing Tamora, Queen of the Goths, sleeps with Dwayne’s married friend, and somehow manages to lose an $8,000 antique sword. His control-freak set designer Ingrid thwarts him at every turn, while Joan the stage manager seems to hate his guts. His key actors keep having emotional meltdowns. He even gets electrocuted by bad wiring.
A rave or a bomb?
Dwayne’s almost infinitely supportive wife Angela (aptly named) may lose her patience, especially if she finds out he has bet their nest egg on the success of the production. As the suspense builds, Chicago decides to throw in a polar vortex of sub-zero temperatures to keep audiences away.
Dwayne, the product of a Catholic school education, has a habit of exclaiming things like, “Screaming Jesus and money changers!” and “Saint Eligius of the holy ozone!” Will the saints come to Dwayne’s aid? Will Gregor Foxx show up, or won’t he? Will the production be a rave – or a bomb?
The chaotic shenanigans conceal a tightly constructed plot full of vivid dialogue that hones to comedy’s fundamental principles: pleasure, surprise, folly, luck both good and bad, and a celebration of human ingenuity and resilience.
As Engling said recently, “You put comic characters in trouble, and then see how they react to the circumstances. Dwayne keeps getting into trouble and not knowing how to extricate himself. Every once in a while, he rises to the occasion, and you think, oh, thank goodness, he is finally doing something right, and then the next thing comes along and knocks him down again. That’s the essence of comedy.”
Reading this tale of the early 2000s, steeped in familiar Chicago streets, bars and theaters, one feels a wave of nostalgia for the pre-pandemic world we have lost. At one point, Dwayne muses, “Where else could you sit down with two old friends in a venerable storefront bar and raise $12,000 to put up a show that just might lead to a Broadway career?” That seems less likely in 2023. When Engling was artistic director of Polarity Ensemble, the Chicago area had more than 200 theater companies.
“There was a tremendous amount of competition,” Engling recalled. “The challenge now is very different. We are still coming out of the pandemic. A lot of our audience is still hesitant to come back to live theater. Some of the venues have disappeared. A number of places that small companies could rent for a reasonable rate are gone.”
But Give My Regards to Nowhere reminds us that theater has always been sustained by dreamers who keep striving in the face of all the odds. The joy, excitement and communal experience of live performance are the beating heart of our culture. We can’t afford to give up on that. And according to Engling, we haven’t heard the last of Dwayne: Two more novels are in the works.