Writer/Performer Mitchell Bisschop’s love for Chicago is palpable and so is his love for the theatre. His embodiment of the quick-witted, tough skinned Chicago columnist Mike Royko is a celebration of both. The Toughest Man in Chicago is a love letter to the city of Chicago, and a testament to Royko’s enduring legacy.
Mike Royko is a Chicago legend. He was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News (and later the Chicago Tribune) from the mid 50’s to the mid 90’s; a turbulent period of time for the city of Chicago as well as the nation. In is 34 years as a newspaper columnist, Royko wrote over 7,500 columns, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1972. Royko’s job was to offer nuanced opinion to the public and he never failed to deliver; a master of explaining facts through story and perspective. He once said, “Facts don’t always come together to create the truth.”
He wasn’t afraid to publicly point out the transgressions of powerful figures, from movie stars to politicians. He made an enemy of Frank Sinatra by making pointed public observations about Sinatra’s security measures. Sinatra famously penned (and copyrighted!) an indignant rebuttal to Royko, shamelessly saving face against Royko’s claims. Royko was the number one adversary of Mayor Richard Daley for the duration of Daley’s tenure from 1955 until his death in 1976. He sharply criticized the lack of gun control and shined a light on racism and police brutality, heavily covering the 1968 Race Riots. He relentlessly lambasted the Chicago Cubs. In his twilight years, Royko sponsored a Ribfest in the city of Chicago, bringing him closer than ever to the people he championed for so long, communing over a mutual love of B.B.Q.
Bisschop finds a fully realized, well-rounded character in Royko. He has Royko’s cadence and physical embodiment in spades. But Bisschop truly shines when he relinquishes Royko’s gritty cynicism, if even momentarily, revealing the inner workings of a kind hearted and deeply concerned man. Bisschop also plays Studs Terkel, a friend of Royko who serves as the story’s narrator as a bit of a caricature, layering a style onto the piece that removes a some of the play’s grittiness and bite.
The writing briefly touches on Royko’s personal history, putting his tough exterior into perspective, but the majority of the story remains focused on Royko’s career and public persona. Use of multi-media does well to highlight notable Chicago history during Royko’s tenure, adding richness and visual complexity to the evening. There’s a lot of shifting between media and live action throughout, which works for the most part, supported by Bisschop who works hard to cultivate and maintain the appropriate drive and intensity while bridging the gap between media and live performance. Director Matt Pardue struggles with the play’s overall pace as the excessive use of blackouts slow the story down considerably.
Mike Royko relentlessly stood up for the little guy. He was exactly who the city needed at exactly the right moment in time. He was funny, kind, caring and deeply human, unafraid of controversy and he used his voice to tell the truth. The Toughest Man in Chicago celebrates his achievement and his humanity.
This production was a part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Encore performances July 1st and 2nd at 9 p.m. https://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/7567