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Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska' haunts theater stage

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If you're going to translate rock music to the theater stage, this is the way to do it.

The beloved rock musical will always be around -- and these days you've got everything from commercially potent jukebox garbage like "Rock of Ages" to intriguing original historical angles such as "Memphis" -- and it's perhaps logical to keep within a musical oeuvre when dragging pop songs from one kind of stage to another.

But there's a small production right now amid Chicago's fertile storefront theater scene that offers up something different. It's a cover band with a unique twist. It's a new kind of mixtape. It's not just art imitating life, it's art imitating art. Reflecting it, anyway.

It's "Deliver Us From Nowhere: Tales From Nebraska," a title that's actually missing a set of quotation marks. That should probably read "Tales From 'Nebraska.' " Eleven playwrights were paired with 10 local directors to create short plays based on the songs from Bruce Springsteen's landmark 1982 album, "Nebraska."

• Through May 20
• Right Brain Project, 4001 N. Ravenswood
• Tickets: $15; (773) 442-2882;

"Deliver Us From Nowhere" is a production of Tympanic Theatre Co., which last season delivered the Kurt Cobain-inspired play "Verse Chorus Verse."

"I'm a huge Springsteen fan," Tympanic artistic director Dan Caffrey told the Sun-Times last week, "but I also felt 'Nebraska' fit our mission in terms of the type of stories we like to tell: dark, gritty, fantastical stories that aren't necessarily supernatural but have a ghostly feeling."

Re-read that sentence before entering the fourth-floor, black-box, Ravenswood loft where Tympanic is presenting "Deliver Us From Nowhere," and understand that "ghostly" is the key word.

The majority of treatments featured in "Deliver Us From Nowhere" are haunted in many respects. Ghosts stalk this stage, but not all of them are visiting from the afterlife. "I always thought ghosts were dead," says one character (amid the bewildering and wonderfully terrifying pitch-black terror of Scott Barsotti's "The Stray," based on Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman"), but in this production that's not always the case.

The "Nebraska" backstory: After "The River" in 1980, Springsteen recorded 10 demos for a sixth album. He intended to pass the cassette around so the E Street Band could learn the tunes, but along the way, Springsteen decided to simply release the recordings as-is. For a performer as bombastic as Bruce, it was a bold move to drop an LP of primarily voice and guitar, unadorned and unvarnished. Adding to the gravitas of the record were the lyrics themselves -- dark, pessimistic tales of losers and serial killers, of the haunted and hopeless.

"Man Will Meddle" is a firm opener, based on the album's title track. The song was written from the perspective of a mass murderer; the short play, however, by Justin Gerber, takes place in a kitchen the night of his execution. Lori is wiping dishes distractedly while finally telling her husband about the days she spent in Nebraska with the alluring bad boy -- who stalks the stage, wordless, not present but bathed in golden light, even though, in Springsteen's words, he's actually waiting for "midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest."

That's about as grounded as this production gets. From there, we experience a broad range of hauntings -- some clearly drawn from Springsteen's words, others connected only by the loosest spider-silk -- including:

• "Resurrecting Beauty," by Adam Webster, in which a desperate man grieves over the body of his lover, bringing her to life in a series of memories that give a serious twist to Springsteen's entreaty to doll up and meet him in "Atlantic City."

• "When You're Dead," by Chris Bower, is based (somehow) on "Mansion on the Hill" and is taut with tension expertly wielded by actor Nate White, whose character delivers a perilous monologue that literally unpacks something his sister frequently said to him: "You're going to remember this, even when you're dead."

• "Daughters of Necessity," by Ted Brengle and based on Springsteen's "Open All Night," turns a diner into a siren-staffed purgatory for grease-stained schmos who can't control their rage. Springsteen ended his song with a narrator praying to a DJ to "deliver me from nowhere"; one of the roshambo waitresses here, though, gets an even better rock and roll line: "You stabbed experience through the heart."

There's a ghost on the radio in "Gospel Hour" (based on "State Trooper"). There's a ghost along for the ride in "The Drive" (based on "Used Cars"). The cop at the end of "Dead Dogs" (based on "Reason to Believe") isn't kidding when he sighs, "Things you've seen have a way of stalking you."

The results are dramatic, moving, unsettling and a perfect introduction to Springsteen fans who've never tried out experimental theater before. Neatly creative on every level. The show doesn't use the actual Springsteen songs (who could afford to license them?), but each production is bookended and colored in by a different set of local musicians.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on May 2, 2012 12:00 PM.

Music reviews: Jack White, Bonnie Raitt, Lurrie Bell was the previous entry in this blog.

Concertline: M83, Carolina Chocolate Drops, more is the next entry in this blog.

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