Artwork by Langford
Since appearing on the scene in 2001, The House Theatre of Chicago has earned high marks for its imaginative musicals. Critics have praised the company for creating shows with the feverish excitement of rock musicians, and now it’s finally teaming up with one: the Chicagoan Jon Langford.
On November 12th, the House premieres All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, a play based on Langford’s songs and art. It has an unusual premise: a faded and forgotten honky-tonk singer named Lofty Deeds spends his time in conversations with a tumbleweed. And the tumbleweed talks back. In fact, it even sings. So do the paintings on the walls of Lofty’s ramshackle home. And when Lofty has a flashback about the time he signed a record deal, music-industry executives appear in the guise of a five-headed monster named Jeff.
Sounds odd, right? When Langford stopped in at an early rehearsal, the House Theatre artistic director Nathan Allen, who plays the title character, looked up from his script. “Jon,” he said, “this play’s fucking weird.”
With a shrug, Langford replied, “Not my fault. I didn’t fucking write it.”
Although Lofty Deeds feels like an immersion inside the mind of Langford (a Welsh native who plays with the Mekons and Waco Brothers while making art as his day job), the script is by the playwright, music critic, and Chicago contributor Mark Guarino. After finding common threads in Langford’s songs and paintings, Guarino let his imagination run wild as he wrote absurd dialogue and outlandish stage directions. “I never thought, Wow, a talking tumbleweed—how am I going to make that work onstage?” he says.
This sort of script scares off some companies, but the director, Tommy Rapley, says it’s perfect for House, a group known for creative new musicals. “There are a lot of really beautiful things in the play,” Rapley says. “They lend themselves to a more imaginative way of storytelling.”
And however surreal it seems, the subject matter is real for Langford. “When I painted Hank Williams surrounded by monsters as he signed his contract, it was very personal and very autobiographical,” he says. “That moment came from actual, real experiences that the Mekons had. All the A and R guys are named Jeff. Absolutely true.”
GO: All the Fame of Lofty Deeds runs Nov. 12th–Dec. 20th at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.; 773-251-2195, thehousetheatre.com
Photography: (portrait) Nero’s House Of Women/Sally Timms and Amy Lombardi, (artwork) courtesy of John Langford