April 8-16: Original work, ‘Oil! and The Jungle,’ brings Upton Sinclair’s classic novels to the stage

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Two novels by muckraking American writer Upton Sinclair, “The Jungle” (1906) and “Oil!” (1927), come to life on the stage in an original production running April 8-16 at the University of Minnesota at Rarig Center’s Stoll Thrust Theatre.

Sinclair gained renown for his writing vividly depicting the struggles and working conditions of workers in an era of unfettered capitalism. He championed the early American labor movement as he exposed the greed, excess and corruption of the corporate elite.

Created by University of Minnesota affiliate faculty Kym Longhi, and performed by 24 undergraduate theatre students, “Oil! and the Jungle” juxtaposes Sinclair’s two novels and the worlds inhabited by workers and bosses.

“There are two worlds that you always see at the same time,” Longhi says.

“You are free as an audience to make any kinds of connections you want between those images.”

The performance includes dance, movement, puppetry and 1920s music.

The set features action on two levels of a nine-foot tall structure “that looks a little like  an oil derrick,” Longhi explains.

Characters from “The Jungle,” Sinclair’s exposé of conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing industry, inhabit the lower level. “They move and breathe together and… you feel they’re struggling as a community,” Longhi says.

Characters from “Oil!” party on the upper level, portraying a life of wealth and political influence, which Sinclair depicted in his novel from the Teapot Dome scandal era, “Oil!” Longhi says, “I turned the ‘Oil!’ world into a vaudeville… They’re very seductive characters.”

“You can see the top and bottom of capitalism moving at the same time and they’re all caught in the gears,” Longhi adds.

A few characters – a union organizer, a preacher – move between the two worlds on a spiral staircase.

“It’s a somewhat lucid dreamscape,” Longhi says. “If you like your theatre wild, come.”

Tickets are $10-$18. For showtimes, visit www.theatre.umn.edu. To reserve tickets, call 612-624-2345.