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Forward Theater Company's Kiritsis imagines a hostage situation
Playwright David Schanker focuses on the dynamics between two very different men under extreme circumstances.
Playwright David Schanker focuses on the dynamics between two very different men under extreme circumstances.

Forward Theater Company's staged reading of Kiritsis, by local playwright David Schanker, made me realize something: despite all the financial scandals of recent years, from Enron to Madoff, I haven't been viscerally angry. Upset, yes, but not mad-as-hell, physically angry.

That's partially the product of cynicism. While I might be surprised at the audacity of a Bernie Madoff or the scale of his crimes, I'm not shocked that such people exist. There's a sense that the game is rigged -- and no one person is to blame, because it's systemic.

But Tony Kiritsis did have a target for his rage. Kiritsis was an Indianapolis man who, in 1977, took hostage the mortgage broker who was foreclosing on a 17-acre property where Kiritsis hoped to build a strip mall.

The standoff, during which Kiritsis had a shotgun wired to his hostage's head, lasted an incredible, agonizing 63 hours.

Little is known about Kiritsis' hostage or what went on during the time they were holed up in Kiritsis' apartment. That has freed up playwright Schanker -- whose script was a finalist in the 2009 Wisconsin Wrights playwriting competition -- to envision the conversation and shifting dynamics between the two.

Because while Kiritsis' hostage is apparently still alive, he has never granted an interview. Kirisis himself died in 2005.

Schanker, as both a lawyer who clerks for the Wisconsin Supreme Court and a novelist/playwright, is in a unique position to do this story justice. But he does not, as you might expect, dwell on the legal ramifications of Kiritsis' case. Instead he's focused on the intimate dynamics between two very different men under extreme circumstances.

The hostage, here given the pseudonym Bob MacDonald, is a middle-class, Midwestern family man given to simple mottos like "even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes." Played by Jim Buske, MacDonald is a married father of three who journeys from meek pleading for his life to challenging Kiritsis to an acceptance of imminent death (which, thankfully, did not happen).

While MacDonald sees himself as a blameless, good-hearted family man, Kiritsis is convinced MacDonald undermined his ability to get tenants for the proposed strip mall and is looking to profit on the land himself. And while MacDonald is sure of his Christian faith, Kiritsis has abandoned his family's Greek Orthodox religion.

Sam White, who plays Kiritsis and also co-directs, has a raspy voice and, at times, Jack Nicholson-esque delivery. Despite Kiritsis' relentless anger and profanity (calling MacDonald a "stupid fuck" countless times), there are also flashes of charm and dark humor. As the hostage standoff begins, the phone in Kiritsis' apartment rings. "Don't ya just hate it when you're in the middle of something and the phone rings?" he grins menacingly.

Buske, as MacDonald, has more opportunity to develop his character and change his reactions over time. Pleading, reasoning, challenging, asking himself if it's all a test from God -- MacDonald's reactions are all believable.

A post-show discussion gave the audience a chance to share reactions and ask questions of co-directors White and Kimberly Megna Yarnall. While playwright Schanker was in attendance, he was not able to speak, as he's recuperating from a heart transplant received only 17 days ago. His wife read a brief, heartfelt and witty statement on his behalf.

The one-night-only staged reading in the Overture Center's Rotunda Studio concludes Forward Theater's strong first season. The debut season ranged from a vintage radio play to the Midwest premiere of a major new play to this, the ongoing development of work by a talented Madison playwright.

It speaks to Forward's commitment to new work, which I hope and expect will continue as they push on into their second season.

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