Review: “The Christians” (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Charlie Strater, Jaret Landon, Jacqueline Williams, Mary-Margaret Roberts, Faith Howards, Jazelle Morriss, Yando Lopez, Robert Brueler/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: 1650 N Halsted

“I want to stay with you forever.”

This is a deceptively simple declaration, appropriate for wedding ceremonies and vocational commitments. In “The Christians,” the words are spoken by a disenchanted minister’s wife. She fears she will not be able to spend eternity with her husband Paul, because he has publicly stated that he no longer believes in hell, and neither should his parishioners. For his wife, who still believes in Satan and the fires of damnation, their difference of opinion severs both their earthly and eternal bonds. The radical act at the heart of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” is that the playwright takes her concern seriously. Hell is not a concept in this eighty-minute meditation on belief and communion. It is a very real threat to relationships built up over years within a faith, where separation and division become torment.

Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) wants to relieve his evangelical congregation of their doubts and fears surrounding the afterlife. The community has just paid off its debts in building a new mega-church, and he wants their sanctuary to be a welcoming haven for outsiders. His associate pastor Joshua (Glenn Davis) is more inclined to use Bible verses about hell to shore up others’ faith. When Paul preaches a sermon giving up on hell, he expects his congregants to fall in line. Pastor Joshua refuses, and takes some of followers out of the church. Over the following days and weeks, Paul must contend with his wife’s worries (Shannon Cochran), the challenging questions posed by members of his flock (specifically Jenny, played with heart by Jacqueline Williams), and the demands of church elders, represented by the badgering Jay (Robert Brueler). As his family and friends fall away, Paul begins to question what led him to this new belief, and whether he has the right to be so certain, especially if it leaves him standing alone.

Tom Irwin and Glenn Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Hnath grew up in a Bible-first church much like Paul’s, and his intimate knowledge shines through in every conversation between pastor and parishioner. He structures the scenes via a continuous contemporary worship service, interspersing private dialogues with public displays of prayer, preaching, and personal testimony. Paul shuffles us between moments in his office and home with a bit of direct address, but he rarely puts down the microphone he uses during services, and there’s very little change in his manner when he talks to a struggling Jenny or when he disagrees with his wife; they speak into microphones, too. Hnath zeroes in on the fundamental fact of a pastor’s life: his public and his private life are rarely, if ever, separate. He must lead by example, and he must be ready at a moment’s notice to soothe fear or confront doubts. He cannot appear uncertain. Because the audience lives in the church service with our protagonist, we must work to see past Pastor Paul’s performance of his duties; at times we wind up just as frustrated and mistrusting as his followers.

I am a minister’s daughter, so I had a vested interest in Hnath’s examination of this conflicted community. I spent much of the play on the edge of my seat, worrying that he would simplify the philosophical and practical issues raised by Paul’s actions. I am happy to say that he draws characters with warmth and understanding, allowing them to debate the minister about how spiritual quandaries affect their everyday lives. When asking about the shift in doctrine, Jenny first lays out what the church means to her; it became her community after escaping an abusive relationship, and the church’s support has provided friends and opportunities for Jenny and her son. So why does Paul seek to divide them all, and drive some of her friends away by denying hell? It is a fair question, and Jenny only stymies the reverend further when she demands why Paul announced his change of heart once the church was past its financial woes, and not before. Hnath never lets Paul rest, and even allows a note of humor to enter the proceedings, when he is asked whether Hitler lives in heaven.

Irwin gives a delicate performance here. He is dutiful and passionate about his work and beliefs, but he keeps a formal remove from the other characters, acknowledging their distress without understanding how to end it. He becomes most humane and human when he cannot answer questions with scholarship or philosophy. Cochran is similarly polite as the smiling minister’s wife, but Hnath does not give her much space to ramp up to rejecting her husband’s point of view. She is hemmed in by this patriarchal world, so it may be purposeful that she does not speak in the worship services, but Hnath gives her the least specific motivation, when her pleading is supposed to hit hardest. It is not a good sign that I cannot remember the character’s first name, but to Cochran’s credit, I heard her desperation all the same.

Davis delivers a fiery, haunting performance as the seeking Joshua. After rebuking Paul and leaving the church, Joshua returns to discuss matters of life and death. In a relentless monologue, he describes his attempts to bring his mother to Jesus in her final moments. Davis owns this piece of theatre, and he imbues the associate pastor’s words with monumental grief and torture at the thought of being forever cut off from his mother. Whether one believes in the afterlife or not, Davis proves how real the outcomes are for the faithful.

Tom Irwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Likewise, director K. Todd Freeman takes these men and women at their word. He never allows the actors to slip into caricatures of Christianity. He embraces the script’s debate about whether it is better to be secure in one’s beliefs and exist alone, or stay with a fractured community made up of doubters and those who disagree. He masterfully controls our perceptions of the worship service, and works with lighting designer Scott Zielinski to make viewers part of the congregation. The play begins during pre-show, with the house lights fully up, and the praise band singing boisterous and wonderful contemporary worship songs. On the night I attended, many in the audience seemed uncomfortable with the sincerity and emotions on display, especially because there was nowhere to hide when Irwin entered and began his sermon. But others near me bowed their heads when called to pray, and clapped along to the rip-roaring music during the pre-show. As Paul drifts further from family and friends, the house lights dimmed, and we became remote listeners, separate from him. It is a masterful and subtle choice, and one that could only be pulled off in the theatre.

The attention to detail does not end with the lights. I was shocked at how well the Steppenwolf stage served as a mega-church sanctuary. Set designer Walter Spangler wisely lines the floor with purple carpet, the color of royalty, a color often associated with Jesus. A giant cross gleams over the heads of the actors, and two projection screens spit out lyrics for the worship songs. Major kudos to projection designer Joseph A. Burke for nailing the hokey natural world scenes that are often displayed at such worship services. And it should be mentioned that costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins gets the Sunday suits and dresses exactly right. Not even the choir wears robes, right in line with the custom of contemporary worship.

“I want to stay with you forever.” Despite the depth and breadth and seriousness given to every part of this production, I keep coming back to that one line in the play. The weight of it. The sadness. The impossible desire. None of us wants to be alone. None of us wants to be separated from those we love. Belief can do that. But “The Christians” asks: does it have to? Is it necessary to divide ourselves? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, to stay with those who oppose you? If you recognize the struggles of others, and accept your detractors for who they are and what they believe, isn’t that all that really matters? Isn’t that faith?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Memorable performances and design provide an astounding production about belief.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Review: “Murder On Mount Olympus” (The Public House Theatre)

Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.
Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.

Show: “Murder On Mount Olympus”

Company: The Public House Theatre

Venue: The Public House Theatre (3914 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 6

It is not easy being a god. Regardless of the pantheon, one might be stereotyped as evil, end up utterly forgotten, or live in constant fear of being torn limb from limb by a fellow jealous immortal. For the gods in “Murder On Mount Olympus,” such everyday problems are the least of their concerns. These gods are stuck in a murder mansion of non-belief, and they are getting picked off one by one.

Lucifer, aka the Prince of Darkness (Alexander Baggett), and Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom (Sarah Lavere), are first to arrive on our plane of existence. They have been trapped in a creepy old house that serves as a performance space for murder mystery style dinner parties. By the time the brotastic Zeus (Mitchell Stone) joins them, they know something is wrong. Too many gods existing in human reality must be a set-up. The spell book nearby and the entrance of gods as varied as Cthulhu (a handy giant tentacle wielded from offstage), Cupid (Whitman Johnson), and Isis (Emily Ember) confirms their suspicions. The butler (Ryan Bennett) has no information to aid them, but plenty to say about their behavior and demands on his time.

Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield
Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield

If it sounds like there is little to this story, you are right! The plot is oblique and events are kept to a minimum, because the Public House Theatre is more in the business of making audiences laugh, rather than making them puzzle through a wild clue hunt. Given the high-stakes nature of his gods, writer/director Byron Hatfield missed the opportunity to flesh out their predicament. Rather than keeping the gods in the dark about whom or what brought them to Earth, Hatfield could have spent time developing relationships between his characters, and complicating their circumstances beyond simply having an elder god show up to wreak havoc. The performance lasts about seventy-five minutes, but there’s really only forty minutes of material here. Thus, the pace is slowed, and some of the jokes don’t land, because the timing is off — I assume, to stretch for precious full-length level minutes.

That said, I did chuckle quite often at “Murder On Mount Olympus,” probably because Hatfield’s snarky characters barely believe the situation they’re in, either. The mystery at the heart of the play is easy to solve, but it’s the down to earth take on the gods that elicits enjoyment of the scenario. Baggett and Lavere have the driest characters, so their job seems easiest. As the eternal bodies pile up, these two display sarcastic human reactions to their imminent death and destruction, and it’s nice to see a catastrophic scene underplayed to that degree. Likewise, Bennett’s stunned reaction to being bathed in blood is worth the price of admission alone.

“Murder On Mount Olympus” will not rattle you to your core, or force you to face spiritual and existential questions. But there is something to be said for a solid troupe of actors doing comedy pretty well. While it may not be easy being a god, it is a lot of fun to watch them operate.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Gods get a mystery to solve in entertaining comedy hour.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Macbeth” (Theatre Y)

screenshot-2016-10-25-13-26-29Show: Macbeth

Company: Theatre Y

Venue:  Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Die Roll: 2

Macbeth the Scottish and “Macbeth” the Scottish play bear a tricky relationship to one another. Macbeth the king was a historical figure, but Macbeth the lead of Shakespeare’s tragedy deals with far too many witches and witchy prophecies to match the factual record. Throw in the fact that sixteen generations of actors — according to director Georges Bigot — have now played Macbeth, and the truth of his life and death gets even fuzzier.

Which is perhaps the way Theatre Y prefers its Macbeth, in their production currently running in the basement of the Chopin Theatre. Anchored by Bigot and an ensemble that rehearsed the play for a year, and only cast roles three-quarters of the way through that process, this “Macbeth” is beautifully painted but still impenetrable. But that is not due to lack of effort and visual panache; it is due to lack of textual dexterity. The ensemble tries to draw parallels between our time and Macbeth’s tale of ambition and existential crises, but the resonance vanishes once it becomes clear some of the actors do not know what they are saying, and that still images and lip-syncing outweighed examination of the text.

For those who have never had the pleasure of reading or seeing “Macbeth,” here is the basic plot outline: our protagonist is a Scottish thane (Brendan Mulhem) who runs into three witches (Kevlyn Hayes, Jackie Richards, and Laurie Roberts). They tell him he is fated to be king of Scotland, and that his friend Banquo (Cody Beyer) is fated to sire kings. Spurred on by this prophesy, Macbeth and his more opportunistic wife (Katie Stimpson) murder the current king Duncan (Arch Harmon). Heir to the throne Malcolm (Hector Alvarez) flees the country, and only vows to return and regain his crown once the warrior Macduff (Jerome Hicks) stands by his side. Meanwhile, Macbeth arranges the murder of many more people, in order to ensure his new title.

This is a play of immense uncertainty. Why do the witches appear to tell Macbeth about his future? Would he still become king if he didn’t murder his way into the position? Why is Lady Macbeth so steely before their crime, and what makes her unravel entirely after its completion? Can truth ever be discerned, when men are able to smile in spite of their malicious actions? Even the language of the play is confounding: “which is which;” “So foul and fair a day I have not seen;” the Porter’s speech on equivocation doesn’t resolve itself so much as peter out. People hear and see things, but the audience can never be sure if birds are crying, or if the Macbeths are jumping at shadows.

Bigot’s best work as a director comes in moments where characters fight the intangible. He is wise to have Macbeth grasp at a knife that does not exist, and then to have Mulhem whirl around the stage to keep from getting cut by his invisible foe. Likewise, the parade of kings that Macbeth sees under the tutelage of the witches happens in his mind’s eye, which allows the audience to take heed of his growing paranoia and psychosis. Moments such as these make for a hallucinatory experience. The audience is Macbeth’s ally throughout; he speaks to us more than anyone except his wife. But he also sees what we cannot, thus proving there is uncertainty in our relationship. Is Macbeth inspired by false prophecy? Is he mad? Or is he seeing true events that will come to pass? We can never know.

This production falters in its grander visual elements. The witches lipsync a Diamonds’ song early on in the play, and Lady Macbeth drags her fingers across a curtain sinsterly, all before performing a dance of her own and reading about Macbeth’s possible future. At other moments, she and Macbeth smile robotically while entertaining guests. Some of these flourishes underline the false faces of the characters, but more often, the sights and sounds put Macbeth in inverted commas. We are watching a production of “’Macbeth,’” not your run of the mill “Macbeth.” But the spectacle rarely informs the audience. Rather it draws the play out to a two hour forty-five minute run time that taxed my good will as an audience member. I also sense that visuals took precedence over looking at the thesis and antithesis in the verse. Rarely have I understood so little of what actors were saying in a Shakespeare play.

I should single out the performances that imbue the play with high stakes and deep meaning. Beyer as Banquo is recognizably human, and his command of poetry helps the audience see the rock and hard place he is stuck between as Macbeth’s rival. Hayes is remarkable as Lady Macduff late in the play. She does not overplay her grief or underplay the danger she is in; she focuses on her son, and her death sticks with the audience once she is gone. Mulhem has a great voice, but his increasingly erratic Macbeth made it hard to follow his thought patterns, especially in the “sound and fury” soliloquy. Stimpson located an intriguing fear in Lady Macbeth early on that vanished before her death, and I was sad to see her insecurity go unexplored.

Michael Rathbun’s light design gave the performance a lurid sheen. His use of low-placed lights to highlight internal monologue gave the actors a stark look, and his use of reds and purples during the banquet and murder scenes sold the carnage in the Chopin’s intimate space. KG Price’s sound editing provides jaunty themes for the characters, and the peppy music lends a creepy vibe to the whole play. The costumes by Branimira Ivanova set the play in a distinctly Kennedy Camelot-setting once action moved back to Dunsinane, an interesting contrast to the contemporary army fatigues that pepper the battlefield scenes.

This play may not be for everyone. If you are in the mood for a sight-heavy “Macbeth,” this production is your best bet. If you are looking for a clear examination of the play’s dark center, you might be better off reading the text on your own.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Spectacle outshines character work and story in a shaky “Macbeth.”

DICE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Red Velvet” (Raven Theatre)

Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

Show: “Red Velvet”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue:  Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 14

Ira Aldridge was the first man of color to perform Othello on the London stage in 1833. He trod the Covent Garden boards at a compelling moment. As riots surrounding the abolition of slavery raged outside the theatre’s front doors, questions about how best to act classical texts for contemporary audiences stymied traditional actors in the rehearsal room. The Aldridge showcased in Raven Theatre’s “Red Velvet” could be seen as the fiery spark burning down outdated racial and artistic sensibilities, only to usher in the new growth of an open-minded and sensitive performance style. If only the play were actually about Ira Aldridge.

This Midwestern premiere, penned by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarkti, gamely attempts to capture the entirety of the English theatre scene circa the mid-1800’s — introducing issues of race and class, the integration of actresses into Shakespeare’s traditionally gender-bent scripts, and the fevered competition between famously presentational performers like Edmund Kean and the more emotionally truthful Aldridge. That is a lot of subject matter to chew on, and the men and women onstage are sacrificed in the name of maintaining and explaining historical context.

Matthew Klingler, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Tim Martin, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

When Ira Aldridge (Brandon Greenhouse) arrives for rehearsal at Covent Garden, the white actors in his band of players react with shock. They assumed Aldridge was white, and his taking up the role of Othello represents a vile rejection of tradition for his Iago, Charles Kean (Tyler Rich). Aldridge tries to persuade Kean that he, of all actors, can best embody the doomed war hero, but Kean responds that great theatre is about the magic of transformation and escapism, not about playing what one begrudgingly greets in the real world. Ellen Tree (Tuckie White), Kean’s fiancée and Aldridge’s Desdemona, is willing to work with Aldridge in his more emotional style, even if it means allowing for slips in pronunciation, as well as acknowledging that an African American man must lay his hands on the dainty throat of a white woman before an outraged audience. The two artists develop a bond that could grow to romance, if the play had space for the excesses of the human soul. Alas, stage time that could explore the “make or break” passions surrounding the production is sadly spent delivering lessons on British economics and declaiming over and over again that Aldridge is a game-changer, without clearly demonstrating what made his acting style so magical, or even what he desires to make of his own career.

It is too bad so few scenes are spent rehearsing the tragedy, because the personal story of creation and social justice stashed away in the heart of “Red Velvet” resonates with issues currently facing the Chicago theatre scene. The Porchlight Theater has been roundly criticized for casting a white man as the Latino narrator of the recently opened “In the Heights.” Organizations like the Chicago Inclusion Project have begun working with theatre companies to diversify casting for texts where minority or disabled actors might be ignored. On a national scale, film companies are being asked to reflect the multicultural reality in which we live via campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite. The most powerful scenes in “Red Velvet” revolve around the very same concerns and demands.

Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

The actors recognize what is at stake. Greenhouse is an engaging actor, and he does an admirable job distinguishing between his own acting choices and the bombastic style of Aldridge’s day. He packs his lines with conviction and energy, and though he is currently a bit too loud for Raven’s small space, creating echoes that obscure meaning, he leads the play with conviction. White does similarly well by Aldridge’s leading lady, revealing a devilish streak underneath her sense of propriety. Tim Martin is a lot of fun as the abolitionist Henry Forester, who fan-boys over Greenhouse the moment they meet. Meanwhile, Rich and Scott Olson do solid work as the ugly members of the cast who don’t want to act beside a man of color.

Still, the script lacks emotional follow-through, sweeping conflicts under the rug until the final ten minutes of the show, where an undercooked parallel between the false faces in “Othello” and the false faces in the theatre company appears. Director Michael Menendian does what he can to build complex relationships between Greenhouse and the other actors, but the shouting matches that result betray how thin the script is when it comes to flesh and blood choices. Why does theater manager Pierre LaPorte (Matthew Klingler) not defend his leading man, when London newspapers print racist reviews? What becomes of Aldridge’s wife Margaret (Sophia Menendian), once he is forced to tour on the road again? What is the personal cost of such racism to Aldridge? The playwright cares so much about scope that she loses her sense of scale, and this history play is turned into a dead, rather than a living, thing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Historical drama leans heavily on history and forgets the drama.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “THRUST!” (Tapman Productions)

Star Dixon, Jumaane Taylor, Tristan Bruns, Ayan Imai-Hall, April Nieves, Ian Berg/Photo: Tapmen Productions.
Star Dixon, Jumaane Taylor, Tristan Bruns, Ayan Imai-Hall, April Nieves, Ian Berg/Photo: Tapmen Productions.

Show: THRUST!

Company: Tapman Productions

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

“THRUST!” is a dance show all about space. Over the course of two hours, performers move around a stage surrounded by seating on three sides. The hope is that each audience member will have a different emotional experience, depending on where they sit in the audience. The members of Tapman Dance Productions, the Modern Marvels Dance Company, Subject: Matter and M.A.D.D. Rhythms all combine to create an individualized evening of entertainment.

I love watching dance, though admittedly, my education in the art form is limited to taking one ballroom dance class, and picking up a few tap moves from my more choreographically inclined colleagues. So I don’t have much to say about the technical aspects of “THRUST!” as a dance performance. But I do know theatre space, and the experiments with the thrust stage over the course of the evening were interesting to watch, even if the smallness of the Stage 773 space doesn’t lend itself to much creative thinking.

The first half of the evening’s dances were far more politically motivated than the second portion. Tapmen and Marvels performers moved all over the stage and into the audience, often in dramatic fashion. The first dance was particularly unnerving, as it involved performers in masks carrying knives into the audience. These dancers skittered around the space like spiders and mimed slashing the throats of tap dancers that moved on and off the stage. I have no idea whether the dance was meant to make a specific statement about the nature of crime and violence, but it was memorable, to be sure. Certainly, masked performers flashing prop knives only a few feet away from my seat provided effective chills.

Another dance spoke to immigration issues. Three doors were wheeled onstage and three performers attempted to move their way through the entrances, while being blocked and pushed aside by those guarding the doors. Music was integrated into this piece as well, with singers at the back of the stage joining voices to perform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Close Every Door To Me.” This piece was effective, but also highlights the issues of working in a black box space, like the one at 773. From where I sat, the doors actually impeded my view of the movements onstage, so my individualized experience of the dance was hampered by the fact that it was performed on a thrust stage.

Martin Bronson, Zada Cheeks, Megan Davis/Photo: Tapmen Productions.
Martin Bronson, Zada Cheeks, Megan Davis/Photo: Tapmen Productions.

The second half of the evening was far less political, and far less complex. Whereas the earlier pieces were all choreographed by Kate O’Hanlon and Tristan Bruns, “From the Top” featured dances choreographed by Ian Berg and performed by Subject: Matter and M.A.D.D. Rhythms dancers. The moves executed by the core of performers were impressive, as the energy and rhythm of each phrase sped up over the long form piece. But there were fewer connections to be made to everyday life in these moments, and the experimentation with three sides of a stage was minimal. That said, the most delightful part of “From The Top” involved three tappers moving through a four by four square of light, improvising steps along to Maurice and the Zodiac’s “Stay Just A Little Bit Longer,” increasing in volume and rhythm each time to light square reappeared.

Lighting designer Michael Goebel doesn’t have as much to do in the second half of “THRUST!,” since the dances flow into each other more organically, but the vibrant reds and oranges cut by sudden blackouts in the first half inhibit the movement of one piece to another, in this writer’s humble opinion.

“THRUST!” is an engaging evening of dance. The artistic director of Tapmen encouraged audience members to move from the center seating to the sides in his pre-show announcement, and I will say that I was happy to be viewing the performance from a different angle. Performing dance in a thrust space provides plenty of opportunities to notice small changes in routines or phrases, even when the experimentation does not pay off. But what I most appreciated about viewing the performance from the side were all the moments I spotted of dancers smiling and enjoying the very act of moving itself.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Dancers outshine choreography meant to challenge proscenium seating.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “DOUGLASS” (the american vicarious)

De'Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.
De’Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.

Show: “DOUGLASS”

Company: the american vicarious

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

Early on in the american vicarious’ “DOUGLASS,” one white abolitionist admonishes another: fine speeches about the illogical nature of slavery are well and good, but what about the lack of sentiment involved in such diatribes? More citizens would be won over to the anti-slavery movement if their hearts were engaged, as well as their heads. Has her friend, by chance, read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” He dismisses the popular novel (and eventual stage play) as melodramatic claptrap, but agrees that a man of color must speak to the experience of slavery, in order to horrify audiences into action. That man is Frederick Douglass.

Now revered for his amazing mind and oratorical skill, world premiere “DOUGLASS” focuses on Frederick (an excellent De’Lon Grant) at the start of his journey in the 1840’s. After reading William Lloyd Garrison’s (Mark Ulrich) uncompromising anti-slavery words in The Liberator, Douglass becomes convinced that he, too, can help the cause, by starting and sustaining the first newspaper run by an African American man in Boston. But wealthy abolitionist Miss West (Carrie Lee Patterson) and Garrison hold back financing for Douglass’ paper in order to motivate him to speak about his experiences as a former slave. The more time Douglass spends making speeches on behalf of others, the more he begins to wonder if he is merely a puppet for the abolitionist movement, rather than one of its leaders. As Douglass’ views on compromise and the Constitution change, Garrison’s become more unyielding, and the two men head towards an ideological conflict.

Mark Ulrich and De'Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.
Mark Ulrich and De’Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.

Which sounds like dry viewing, I am sure, given that oratory and publishing are the major dramatic concerns here. But playwright Thomas Klingenstein never misses an opportunity to highlight how Douglass’ development is hindered by the society he lives in. This is the story of a man hampered by the large ideals and small crimes of others. We watch Douglass as he builds support and debates whether or not he is too ambitious or too compromising for white abolitionists. The debates between Douglass and Garrison touch on matters as continually contemporary as the perception of black skin and the organization and silencing of black voices. And the differences cut to the bone, as Garrison uses increasingly personal attacks to win Douglass back to his way of thinking.

Director Christopher McElroen stages a spare production, with the actors shaping the action and time on set designer William Boles’ splintering wooden platform. Grant is an imposing figure, always in charge of any room he enters, and his command breaks only in his speeches about the slave experience. Ulrich ping-pongs around the stage, his fiery demands gathering strength with each affront (though he seemed to struggle with his lines at moments in the first act). Patterson represents a calming influence, as does the unpretentious Kristin Ellis, who plays Anna, Douglass’ wife. Ellis has the difficult job of acting as a naysayer to her husband, and while the script does not flesh out the dynamics of their marriage, Ellis makes them clear simply in the way she moves around her home. Likewise, Kenn E. Head as Delany, a Back-to-Africa proponent, provides a sounding board for Douglass when he is surrounded by white voices, and his sardonic nature suits the character.

De'Lon Grant and Kristin Ellis/Photo: Evan Barr.
De’Lon Grant and Kristin Ellis/Photo: Evan Barr.

“DOUGLASS” is touted as a multimedia production by the american vicarious. Projection designer Liviu Pasare paints the back wall of the space with portraits of Douglass and Garrison, as each addresses the public. In the second act, their faces are covered with hashtags and at signs, possibly calling to mind the Black Lives Matter movement and its Twitter presence. The flourishes are distracting, as the script easily connects Douglass’ concerns about power and justice to those we harbor today. More off-putting is Sarah Espinoza’s sound design. The transition music between scenes is well-chosen, ranging from hip-hop to hymnals, but the sound levels were ear-splitting in the production’s intimate Theater Wit space. The music took me out of the performance, rather than drawing me deeper in.

Early in the play, Douglass abandons discussion of his life as a slave for philosophical statements about whether African American men and women can be considered full citizens of the United States. Garrison finds his switch as distasteful as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The irony, of course, is that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was melodrama meant to enlighten white audiences, just as Douglass’ tortured descriptions were. “DOUGLASS” posits that Frederick’s power to disrupt and compromise came from his insistence on speaking to men and women of color, as well as whites. Thus, the real engagement comes not from sentiment, but from speaking one’s truth, especially if those around you are not ready.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: History comes alive in well-written debate over slavery.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Dating & Dragons” (The Factory Theater)

Nick Freed, Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren, Savanna Rae/Photo: Michael Courier.
Nick Freed, Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren, Savanna Rae/Photo: Michael Courier.

Show: “Dating & Dragons”

Company: The Factory Theater

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard)

Die Roll: 16

Games, whether you’re talking about Monopoly, Risk, Magic, or Dungeons & Dragons, are governed by rules. Players can make prescribed choices at specific junctures while playing. Despite the comfort such routine may bring, games are also governed by chance. More often than not, a player rolls a many-sided die to determine his or her fate. And they have no control over what which way the roll lands.

This is a truth that Jack (Nick Freed) struggles with in The Factory Theater’s “Dating & Dragons,” currently running at the company’s new Howard space. Jack is a dungeon master for his group of friends; he controls the high fantasy adventures and card games they play multiple times a week. Gus (Josh Zagoren) takes the rules and routines of each game most seriously, clearly finding real life a boring slog. Paige (Savanna Rae) enjoys the multitude of choices that come along after she rolls the die. But Jack’s best friend Sean (Joe Faifer) is happy to interrupt their gaming sessions to discuss the girl Jack has been flirting with at work. Her name is Diane (Rebecca Wolfe), and Jack’s evolving relationship with her sparks what little conflict exists in “Dating & Dragons.” Jack thinks he can see where the romance is headed, but sadly, people are not predicated by game dice.

Rebecca Wolfe and Nick Freed/Photo: Michael Courier.
Rebecca Wolfe and Nick Freed/Photo: Michael Courier.

Playwright Mike Ooi pays a lot of lip service to the idea of rules throughout his script. However, Jack’s dedication to consistent game play is not what gets in the way of his connection with Diane. So the many sequences in which Jack or various other characters explain the games they are playing — often named by generic terms as an in-joke for the characters and as a safety measure for Factory itself — waste valuable stage time that could be spent developing dramatic stakes for Jack and Diane. The audience does not need to know how to play the games these characters enjoy, unless those rules impact the real world they live in, and much to Gus’ pleasure, they really don’t. Some characters voice concern that Jack will be taken away from their meetings by his new-found love, but we never see the consequence of lost gaming time. Ooi’s enthusiasm for tabletop gaming and video games is baked into the quips the group trades in each playing scene. But there isn’t a shred of connection between Jack’s love life and his friendships or their recreational pursuits, so I’m hard-pressed to call “Dating & Dragons” a play, when there’s little story to involve myself in.

Diane is another conundrum in the script. Wolfe gives her a lot of charm, but we learn little about her wants and needs, given how solely we live in Jack’s world. The most we see in her is what Jack sees: that Diane is pretty, is willing to hang with his nerdy friends, and wants to sleep with him. Ooi brings up the fact that Diane has her own wants and needs a few times, but by the time we find out what she desires, she’s too much of a cypher to invest in Jack’s heartbreak. For a play that is attempting not judge nerdier activities, Ooi inadvertently creates a world where women have little say, and are around mostly to be saved by the hero — Jack, in this case.

Nick Freed and Mike Manship/Photo: Michael Courier.
Nick Freed and Mike Manship/Photo: Michael Courier.

Director Scott Oken keeps things lively by having separate actors act as avatars embodying the games the group plays. And while the actors are having a blast mimicking the self-serious tropes of “Game of Thrones,” as well as the halting mechanics of video game graphics, the theatrical device grows stale over time. Do we really need avatars showing the audience giant cards that Jack and his friends are throwing? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to watch the game and imagine the adventure in one’s head? A late attempt by an avatar to take on Jack’s role broke the formula, but I remain unsure what purpose this moment served in the story.

Kaitlyn Grissom’s set admirably captures Jack’s toy-filled apartment and workplace, though the transitions between the two eat up stage time that could be used by the avatars or the gamers themselves. Sarah Espinosa’s sound design, especially the pre-show, captures the feeling of a good mix tape, with some Nintendo soundtracks thrown in. While costume designer Gary Nocco doesn’t have a huge budget to work with, he makes do with clever nods to each game played, making for enjoyable visuals.

Chance is a part of love, as much as it’s a part of any game (whether or not the players realize it). While the creators of “Dating & Dragons” clearly love their games and all forms of gaming, injecting a bit more chance into their plot may have given this play a greater sense of risk, and helped me fall in love with the production.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A story about gamers is less story and more games.

DICE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”

Review: “Wastwater” (Steep Theatre Company)

Nick Horst and Kendra Thulin/Photo: Gregg Gilman.
Nick Horst and Kendra Thulin/Photo: Gregg Gilman.

Show: “Wastwater”

Company: Steep Theatre Company

Venue: Steep Theatre Company (1115 West Berwyn)

Die Roll: 12

The Wastwater Lake in England contains so little oxygen that it possible to preserve bodies drowned in its depths. This scientific oddity is spouted off by one half of a couple during a hotel tryst that may or may not end in sexual congress. Such is the nature of Simon Stephens’ writing in “Wastwater,” a script that places human connection right alongside the crumbling fact of a finite planet. Steep Theatre Company’s production of the play emphasizes a similar combination of yearning and danger that serves its actors well.

“Wastwater” works as a circular, not linear narrative. The plot is more a triptych of events that reverberate with each other, without the characters ever realizing their connectedness. Each scene takes place near Heathrow Airport, giving a sense of impermanence to every sequence. In the play’s first scene, Harry (Joel Boyd) bids a hard farewell to his foster mother Frieda (Melissa Riemer), who wants him to stay home rather than work to save the Canadian wilderness. In the second, Lisa (Kendra Thulin) and Mark (Nick Horst) navigate whether they will move forward with their affair. In the final scene, Jonathan (Peter Moore) negotiates with Shauna (Caroline Neff) over a delicate and highly illegal travel arrangement.

Joel Boyd and Melissa Riemer/Photo: Gregg Gilman.
Joel Boyd and Melissa Riemer/Photo: Gregg Gilman.

Stephens, now famous for his Tony-winning adaptation of “Curious Incident In the Dog At Nighttime,” works more like a novelist or an Impressionist painter than a playwright. It is only when you step away from his plays, days after the viewing, that you understand what he wants you to see. In “Wastwater,” the tenuous bonds between parent and child, teacher and student, buyer and seller are laid bare. What we do not know about one another is vast, as deep as the deepest lake in England, and that troubles Stephens. Yet he is more successful at digging into missed opportunities and missed communications in the first and third scene, where the thematic ties of parents and children are clear. The second sequence gave me pause, as its incendiary trajectory led Stephens to draw an unbelievable and anti-climatic conclusion. But that is the danger of working more in theme and conflicted image than plot. Clarity is lost, but deeper emotional entanglements can be illuminated.

Director Robin Witt uses Steep’s black box space to marvelous effect in this production. Each scene is blocked differently, with the mother and foster son standing on a rooftop with only a few feet of space between them. Lisa and Mark bound nervously around their entire hotel room. And Jonathan and Shauna move between keeping the entire length of the stage between them and hovering uncomfortable inches apart. Witt thus creates a unique signature in each set of circumstances, where the actors are able to play their relationships memorably and with imagination. She’s generated subtle and engrossing work with the entire cast.

Caroline Neff and Peter Moore/Photo: Lee Miller.
Caroline Neff and Peter Moore/Photo: Lee Miller.

Thulin has the most difficult role by far. Her fluttery nervousness initially tracks as typical for an unsatisfied but ordinary wife. But as her scene progresses, she must convince both Horst and the audience that her desires are more complicated than a simple yes or no would indicate. Smartly, Thulin never falls into pleading or demands; she is as matter of fact as possible, and that goes a long way to clearing up a scene that should really be its own play. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Neff dominates the stage as Shauna, using forceful body language and blunt dialogue delivery to dig what she wants out of her charge. I last saw Moore in “Brilliant Adventures,” where he played a smooth and terrifying gangster. Here, he radiates a nebbish Everyman quality, getting the audience on his side, despite the questionable nature of his actions.

Steep’s designers always deliver a cohesive vision, and “Wastwater” is not exception to that trend. Joe Schermoly’s set is sparse, but provides a stage-length window that suggests a roof, a hotel room, and a shady warehouse, all in one. Brandon Wardell’s lighting plays against Schermoly’s smoked glass, evoking planes flying overhead between each scene. And Thomas Dixon’s airplane engines almost rattle the seats. I was uncomfortably reminded of afternoon commutes when the planes bank a little too low over the highway merging into O’Hare.

There is a lot in “Wastwater” that looks and feels familiar. Stephens has said that he writes in order to build faith in the human spirit, but he never excises the unromantic or discomforting truths about life. After all, the lake may look beautiful on the surface, but you ignore what’s lurking underneath at your own peril.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Tension between infinity/impermanence brought to great life by actors.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Human Terrain” (Broken Nose Theatre)

Jessamyn Fitzpatrick and Kim Boler/Photo: Matthew Freer.
Jessamyn Fitzpatrick and Kim Boler/Photo: Matthew Freer.

Show: “Human Terrain”

Company: Broken Nose Theatre

Venue: Voice of the City (3429 W Diversey Ave)

Die Roll: 6

In the last ten years, a bevy of plays have been written about war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes, these plays focus on soldiers and the sacrifices they must make. Sometimes, these plays focus on by-standers harmed by the violence of war. Sometimes these plays demonstrate the effect of war on veterans who have returned home. Broken Nose Theatre’s “Human Terrain” distinguishes itself by centering its point of view on a civilian contractor for the army.

Mabry (Kim Boler) is an anthropologist serving with a United States unit in Fallujah. When we first meet our newly graduated doctor, she is being interrogated by Kate (Jessamyn Fitzpatrick) in a shadowy detention facility. Together, the two unravel Mabry’s actions and alliances during her time on a human terrain systems team in Iraq, with a suspicious hint of reticence marking all of Mabry’s dialogue. While embedded with a combat unit, Mabry befriends her military escort Detty (Matt Singleton), a young man who appreciates her college education. And she makes strides with Adiliah (Shozzett Silva), a local woman with whom she debates the use of the hijab. The two women begin meeting secretly without Detty, and while Mabry recognizes her violation of security protocol, she feels that gaining the trust of those she came to Iraq to help is paramount. Matters grow dire when a violent incident blurs Mabry’s loyalties, causing Kate to question whether her charge is treasonous or a poor judge of character.

Playwright Jennifer Blackmer has done her homework. There is as much technical information about army regulations in this play as there is dramatic conflict. While I was never one hundred percent clear on Mabry’s ultimate anthropological goal in connecting with the people of Iraq, I appreciated how much time and effort Blackmer spent in outlining her insider-outsider status among the unit’s soldiers. Her relationship with Adiliah could have used the same attention. The two women share a lot of scenes, but I never felt their connection, because their bond never became concrete to me. The debate they have over the hijab lends thematic weight to the story, which pays off in the play’s final moments. But I failed to see the common bond uniting the women. In order for Mabry’s defiance to hold an audience member’s attention, her friendship with Adiliah requires high stakes. Once danger arrives, Mabry’s choices become distinct, personal, and fraught. But three-quarters of the play has passed by then. There is a difference between escalation of a conflict and marking time until events become complicated. More often than not, Blackmer seemed to be marking time with her female characters.

Kim Boler and Robert Koon/Photo: Matthew Freer.
Kim Boler and Robert Koon/Photo: Matthew Freer.

Though the script falters, Boler creates distinct relationships with each of her fellow cast members. Her discussions about military behavior and education with Singleton display an ease and equality that is missing from her interactions with her commanding officer, Alford, given a lot of salt by Robert Koon. She and Silva share a quiet series of scenes, and never let the theme-heavy dialogue impede their friendliness.

Director Benjamin Brownson does his best to evoke a desert feeling in the small performance space. The house is surrounded by beige cloth that represents an army tent and the color of the desert, a smart choice that doesn’t obscure the oddness of that permanent one-way mirror fixed into the back of the room. (I’m guessing this arts space is not geared specifically for theatre performances.) The sound design by Grover Holloway creates a distinct landscape, where artillery rounds and explosions are mixed with bird calls. And the mix of army uniforms and hijabs is well chosen by costume designer Moriah Lee Turner.

Broken Nose Theatre is a “pay-what-you-can” company, so it is impressive that they took on a script that requires a lot of bells and whistles for the audience to immerse themselves in the world. I applaud the company’s ambition, even if some of the production elements are hit or miss. “Human Terrain” offers a new perspective within a military narrative, one that motivates the audience to ask unique questions about American purposes abroad.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Military drama loses the audience until the stakes raise.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Ben Hecht Show” (Grippo Stage Company)

James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.
James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.

Show: “The Ben Hecht Show”

Company: Grippo Stage Company

Venue: Noyes Cultural Arts Center (927 Noyes St)

Die Roll: 3

“The Ben Hecht Show” is a quiet play. In real life, the title character is responsible for the chilling spy games of “Notorious” and the screwball newspaper antics of “His Girl Friday.” But in this solo piece dedicated to his fight against Antisemitism and atrocities during World War II, erudition and reflection are the screenwriter’s tools of choice.

Based on Hecht’s books A Guide for the Bedeviled and A Child Of the Century, this one-man play written and performed by James Sherman uses only Hecht’s words to take the audience on his journey from ignorance to enlightenment. We first see Hecht typing in his library, and he interrupts his work to introduce us to a conundrum: once you have experienced anti-Semitism, what can you do to stop it? His journey begins with an actress asking him to stand in for all Jews while positing that the Germans are not really all that bad, and soon Hecht is filling the audience in on his idyllic upbringing and fast-rising career as a screenwriter. His success seems untouched by his Jewishness, though he notes that many in his field hid or changed their Jewish names in order to get by in the industry. After experiencing prejudice and realizing that an entire people are being wiped out in Europe, Hecht resolves to use his skills to create a call to action.

Sherman welcomes the audience into Hecht’s puzzled state by degrees. Hecht’s writing avoids sensational stories and broad pronouncements, so the emotional meat of his struggle can come off as conceptual at times. Sherman must mix Hecht’s bewildered moments into a concoction that is equal parts humor at the human race and even-keeled curiosity about its failings. No easy feat, but he brings a conversational warmth to Hecht’s persona that ingratiates the audience to his breakdown of identity politics. Once Sherman gives up the ghost that Hecht has been hiding all evening – namely, that he fought for Jewish appreciation during the war not for political, but personal reasons relating to his love of his Jewish neighborhood growing up – the admission feels like it costs the actor something, and that is impressive, given how intellectually Hecht wraps us in his problems.

James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.
James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.

If the script is a bit muddled in the service of preserving Hecht’s voice, perhaps that is the cost of using only his words for the production. As Hecht organizes theatre and film people to perform what’s labelled a piece of “Jewish propaganda,” friends and colleagues argue with and abandon him. Given that this artistic creation is the most concrete representation of Hecht’s activism seen in the play, it is galling that the audience never understands why people turn against Hecht’s work at this moment. Why would “Jewish propaganda” be a bad thing? Why do various Jewish organizations fight over the proposal? What end result does Hecht hope for? None of these questions are addressed, and so the play ends on a confused, rather than clarifying note.

Director Dennis Začek provides visual cues for Hecht’s growing struggle with how he can help his people in a time of crisis. Props placed throughout Hecht’s home library (subtly furnished by set designer Abigail Reed) are picked up and shown to the audience, to give a little context to his tale. These objects, as well as slide projections showcasing movie posters, also give Sherman an impetus for movement and reflection. As he deepens his reflection, he removes his hat and loosens his tie. Such flourishes demonstrate at least the illusion of internal conflict, even when the script refuses to delve deep into the emotions Hecht is exploring.

But there are blessings in a quiet evening of theatre. Sherman’s portrayal is never overzealous, and when Hecht eliminates humor in favor of sorrow, he learns a valuable lesson: people will listen to what you have to say if you throw in some jokes with the drama.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Famous screenwriter spins a warm, intellectual yarn.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”