Review: “Mother of Smoke” (Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company)

Kelsey Shipley, McCambridge Dowd-Whipple, Emma Ladji and Stephanie Shum/Photo: Austin D. Oie.

Show: “Mother of Smoke”

Company: Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company

Venue: Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway St)

Die Roll: 2

At the beginning of “Mother of Smoke,” a performer informs the audience that we exist in an in-between space. We are living outside time and experience, so we are safe in the theater. Yet we are not at home. We are constantly in transit. This is a fitting introduction, given that home and safety form the twin concerns of the experimental performance, and the script itself is a mash-up of “The Trojan Women,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and monologues about the crumbling of the American Dream. The destruction of Troy occurs simultaneously with the ruling class’ loss of their orchard property, and in the middle of all this, food deserts in Inglewood are discussed. It is a lot to wrap one’s mind around, and while the cast valiantly brings life to each set-piece, the end result feels disjointed and taxing, no matter how much the safety of drama is heralded.

Co-created by Thom Pasculli, and the Walkabout Theater and Red Tape Theatre ensembles, the production includes writing from Charles Mee, Ellen McLaughlin, Anton Chekhov, Euripides, and company writers Emma Stanton, Morgan McNaught, Lucas Baisch, and Lucia Thomas. If that seems like too many cooks in the kitchen, your instinct is correct. While the acting ensembles generate affecting visuals and excel at the contemporary material in “Mother of Smoke,” the older texts create contrasts that blur the performance’s overall context. While it is an interesting academic exercise to ponder how the loss of the Russian nobility’s cherry orchard matches up with the ravages of war experienced by the women of Troy, the script cannot link the two directly enough to generate dramatic friction or worthwhile meaning. Loss of home can be much more viscerally felt when it comes to military refugees. How that trauma connects to gentrification in Chicago is anyone’s guess, because we hear so few speeches about it. I appreciate that the writers left the audience to their own conclusions, but a stronger spine, or clearer deconstructions of each text, would have provided us more entertainment and a clearer set of tools to work with as fellow collaborators.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Katie Mazzini particularly stands out in her performance as Helen of Troy. She moves from sardonic wit about her plight to a fevered shout about how her beauty and the war are meaningless. Kelsey Shipley as Lyubov in “The Cherry Orchard” single-handedly holds that storyline together, simply by providing a grounded presence for the other actors around her. Alex Rodriguez as Lyubov’s lost tutor, and as Aeneus in the play’s final section, brings a raw emotional quality to haunted speeches. And Emma Ladji as Dido proves a wise teacher in a world born after war.

Movement collaborator Carrie Drapac provides the most memorable moments of the production, using each actor as a piece of the storytelling. Women wave their hands frantically while men roll around on the floor, desperate for connection and clinging to one another. The strongest parts of the play involve silence and movement, rather than worked-over monologues. The times I felt most affected by the colliding scenes all arrived during dances or scenic transitions.

When we enter a theatrical performance, we implicitly agree to live in an in-between space for a few hours. We do this because we hope to learn something about the world, something about ourselves. By listening to others’ stories, we become more human, and hopefully, find some semblance of safety and community during that reinforcement. “Mother of Smoke” wants to unsettle in order to educate, but its stitched together parts form a patchy whole, and leave us wanting clarity.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Uneven script hampers strong emotional and physical acting from cast.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”