Story: We can see the stock trader, but we’re advised to wear the provided surgical masks and keep our distance. As a safety precaution, he’s been quarantined, visited only by health service workers who monitor his readings.

Just like the stock market exchange where he so assiduously worked for many years, any fluctuations in his readings can lead to unwanted volatility. The trader knows this, but any thoughts about his beloved daughter or his wife or his very existence beyond these sterile surroundings can bring on depression or anger.

He stalks his premises like a caged animal, contemplating how to extricate himself from such an unpleasant arena. The stress and strain, though, of dealing with unknown economic forces in order to extract profits for unseen overlords ultimately has proven to be too much.

Our trader is “infected” with a serious social malady, be it greed or capitalism or unchecked lust for material possessions. He’s given the better part of his life in service to these dubious gods and now we see him in solitary confinement. He serves as a cautionary tale for us all.

Highlights: Upstream Theater artistic director Philip Boehm and his troupe present the American premiere of this terse character study by German playwright Albert Ostermaier. Alan Knoll breathes poignant life into the wretched protagonist with an affecting performance in this one-man show.

Other Info: Director Patrick Siler notes in the program that he observed the “mostly white male” traders who toiled at the Chicago Board of Trade regularly in the late 1990s and that “all of them had bags under their eyes,” even though they primarily were in their 20s and 30s. Stock trading is a savage occupation where the rare middle-aged trader was “somehow defying the odds that he survived that long.”

The protagonist in Ostermaier’s one-act drama has survived, but he certainly isn’t among the living. That much is conveyed in Knoll’s astute and perceptive performance. The actor shows us how his character can make sporadic rallies in his temperament to rage against the system, but ultimately slumps back down into an accepted defeat.

Knoll utilizes the breadth of Patrick Huber’s stark scenic design, a rectangle of sterile poles with a reclining chair at one end and a desk with a chair and computer at the other. Through Michael Dorsey’s media design the computer spews out the detritus of rapid-fire stock exchange numbers, silhouetted in Geordy van Es’ lighting. Elizabeth Lund adds some melancholy props while Michele Friedman Siler adorns Knoll in a rumpled suit, devoid of shoes.

Boehm’s translation of Ostermaier’s work is dutifully consistent in its depressing delivery, sounding a warning for a society too much reliant on material gains through technology or any other efforts. Siler’s direction relentlessly pounds that point home by showing the indifference of the trader’s health service ‘handlers’ in their routine treatment of him.

Knoll’s on-stage portrayal is enhanced by a ‘soundscape’ devised by David A.N. Jackson to the left of stage right. Jackson incorporates guitar, percussion and other musical elements to add an extra layer of sadness to the unhappy proceedings.

Knoll’s emotions run the gamut from brief joy recalling better times to the utter despair presently experienced by the trader. He ranges from inertia to volcanic outbursts of anger. But, like a tree falling in the forest with no one around, does his unnamed trader make a meaningful sound?

Infected is slowly paced over its 90 minutes, which gives its audience more than sufficient time to ruminate on its philosophical bent. One is advised to sell her/his emotions before succumbing to the contagion witnessed on stage.

Play: Infected

Group: Upstream Theater

Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive

Dates: February 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25

Tickets: $25-$35; contact or 669-6382

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

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