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THEATER REVIEW Haymarket
by Catey Sullivan
2018-06-27

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Playwright: Alex Higgin-Houser ( book, lyrics ), David Kornfeld ( music )

At: Underscore Theatre at the Den Theatre's Heath Mainstage, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: UnderscoreTheatre.com; $30-$35, $15 students, industry. Runs through: July 22

If you're not on the clock 16 hours of every 24 and didn't have to quit elementary school to go work in a factory, you owe a debt to the labor activists of the Haymarket Affair.

Most Haymarket histories focus on Albert Parsons and the other men condemned to death for their alleged role in a May 4, 1886 labor rally that turned deadly. But it's not Albert Parsons at the center of Underscore Theatre's delightfully raucous musical Haymarket. It is, instead, Lucy Gonzalez Parsons—Albert's wife.

In Alex Higgin-Houser ( book and lyrics ) and composer David Kornfeld's new musical, Lucy ( Bridget Adams-King ) embodies the power and the enduring legacy of Haymarket-era activism. Like Hamilton's Eliza Hamilton, Lucy Parsons effected lasting change long after her husband's death.In her fight to change the world and control her own narrative, she prevailed. In Lucy's orbit, director Nick Thornton has crafted a wonderful hullabaloo.

Haymarket is a showpiece for an ensemble of terrifically skilled musicians. Music director Robert Ollis has the cast playing guitars, banjos, mouth organs, washboards, drums, horns, violins, lutes, ukuleles, electric basses and keyboards throughout. This is a group that has its way with double-jointed barchords, athletically demanding strums and delicate plucking. Their a cappella work will give you the shivers: When the instruments cut out and all that remains are the vocals, all seems right with the world.

The Haymarket story remains upsettingly relevant. On May 3, 1886 police opened fire an on an unarmed gathering of laborers striking for an 8-hour workday at the McCormick Reaper Works. Several strikers were killed. The next day, workers rallied in Haymarket Square. The police showed. Someone threw a bomb. Eight cops died. To this day, no one knows who threw the bomb. As Haymarket shows with a circus metaphor that's both whacky and alarming, the trial that condemned Parsons and his cohorts was a travesty.

Haymarket skims over some of the facts, but doesn't skimp on the music. There is an honesty and a fierceness to the ensemble's multi-faceted sounds, whether they're stomping the floorboards with boots that double as percussion instruments or raising the rafters with their soaring harmonies.

The characters aren't always deep, but they've got shine to spare. As bomb expert Louis Lingg, Joey Herbert smolders like a fuse ready to blow. Erik Pearson's Albert Parsons is both maddening ( in his insistence that his wife take a distant back seat in a movement she's more than capable of leading ) and loving ( there's no doubt but Albert and Lucy are devoted to each other, even when they are frustrated with each other ). The "pick chorus" of Eric Loughlin, Elleon Dobias and Kelsey Smith create a barn-burning hootenanny on their varied instruments.

If you're able to take any kind of work holiday this summer—weekend or otherwise—tip your hat to Lucy Parsons.


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