One of my favorite offerings “lost” during Covid-19 quarantine are the low-key artist gatherings (usually pre-or post show) that have been a Strawdog specialty over the years. Linger around after the curtain goes down, and you could be treated to a reading of Twitter penned short plays, or (my favorite) a special skills night where actors perform the least often called-upon skills on their resumes. “The Four” feels less like a full-fledged production, but more like a Strawdog community check-in. There has been so much change in the past year (not only during quarantine, but due to changing performance spaces and the naming of a new artistic director), this live broadcast is a welcome, and literal, fireside chat.
Interim artistic director Kamille Dawkins revisits the founding principles that have guided each Strawdog production since the company’s inception in poetry, live, next to a backyard fire pit. Ensemble members Scott Danielson, Becca Levy, Michael Reyes and Dawkins herself deliver an ode to their long-standing company, with all the affection you’d reserve for a frail, sometimes slow-moving senior canine. The troupe then opens up the forum to their live audience, asking viewers what pillars, besides their original four (genuine connection, challenge, community, ensemble), are tugging at our consciences and drawing our focus today. In ritual burning, those ideas that viewers want to uphold or abandon, abhor or emulate all get a brief moment to be held, then thrown into the licking flames; from nothing to nothing.
This brief ritual might not lodge deep in the hearts of anyone outside of Strawdog’s intended circle of ensemble members and avid supporters, but if this theater has impacted your Chicago theater experience, it will feel like a welcome embrace.
DICE RATING: d10 –– “Worth Going To“
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Strawdog teases an entirely virtual season and leadership shake-up.
Because Chicago audiences are unlikely to have seen Chicago Immersive Theater’s brand of collaborative problem solving theater, I want to be careful not to divulge too much about their “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle” premiere. Creators Jacqueline Stone, Anderson Lawfer, Nicole Bloomsmith and Becca Braun have conceived a sweet, site-specific adventure that’s perfect if you have a multitude of young and old charges, spanning the faith spectrum. Director Jacqueline Stone and the creative team have ensured there is something to keep minds and hands occupied around every corner.
In this immersive experience, audiences are greeted by Irving Walker (Anderson Lawfer) and Sir Cyrus (Julian Stroop), two time-travelers spanning the centuries with one mission: find a priceless menorah treasured by Irving’s wife Grace (Nicole Bloomsmith), lost for generations. Clues to its whereabouts have been hidden in the past, so we must visit as many previous December eighths as possible, looking for locked safes and the clues that will open them. So they don’t end up creating a paradox, Walker is sending the audience in his place with Cyrus to explore his wife’s past and locate the menorah. There may be hints with their daughter Sarah (Laura Nelson) and her wife Ruth (Becca Braun), or with Grace’s 1950s vaudevillian Grandfather Eli (Dan Cobbler), or her Holocaust era great-grandparents Mildred (also Bloomsmith) and Jonathan (Andrew Bailes).
Think of it like a series of escape rooms, or a very gentle LARP that even the youngest members of a cozy audience could grasp and participate in. It’s the sort of environment built to encourage collaboration, speaking up, and obeying the “yes, and” principal of improvisation when a time-jumping anomaly asks for your help. To move on in each pocket of time, you have to remember numbers, phrases, and hebrew symbols symbols, and use them to decode your next steps. You might also be invited to share something small, like a joke or a dance, with your group. Any audience member who is well versed in story structure can see what will happen before it does, but performers cue an atmosphere of patience and generosity; the puzzle isn’t solved until the smallest of us understands it.
Aside from our central conflict against time, each character pairing we see is a solid example of loving marriage or working partnership. Anderson Lawfer as Irving Walker and Julian Stroop as Sir Cyrus are unflappable time professionals and devoted friends, with Stroop’s mad-scientist musings forwarding the whole experiment. Dan Cobbler turns to us as Eli Applebaum, a new comedian on the vaudeville circuit who just needs some new material to set him apart. Other wholesome pairings include Becca Braun as the Rabbi Ruth with Laura Nelson as Sarah, a patient school teacher and wife to Ruth. There is nothing as sweet as the pairing of Andrew Bailes as Jonathan and Nicole Bloomsmith as Mildred, a couple escaping the holocaust, but who can still surprise each other with little gifts and love notes.
For every jaded attendee, like myself, whose sense of wonderment has been whittled down to a nub, and is just content to have a pleasant afternoon, there are attendees for whom this experience will feel essential and aesthetic informing. This show is absolutely for them.
DICE RATING:d10 — “Worth Going To“
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Get lost in the past to find a Hanukkah treasure.
Show: “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle”
Company: Chicago Immersive Theatre
Venue: Grace Lutheran Church (1430 South Blvd Evanston, IL)
Even in the vastness of space, gender discrimination persists. Astronauts at the international space station recently had their first all-female space walk cancelled because the only available suits were sized to fit men and not women. In “Women of 4G,” the crew members on a long-distance satellite repair mission are trying to accomplish a feat of their own, finishing this near-Mars mission as their nation’s first all-female crew. Well, almost all-female. Their captain is a man. And when he dies suspiciously mid-mission, the women’s hopes to make their mark on history are put in jeopardy.
Amy Tofte’s play essentially functions as a drawing room murder mystery, only the drama happens in space. Instead of the crew being stranded on an island, they are floating in a vessel they cannot escape. They have reached the edge of communication with the Earth, so they cannot report what has happened, not unlike when a storm cuts out the telephone lines in an Agatha Christie whodunit. Each crew member has reason to suspect the others, and when they split into smaller groups, their resentments at how they were treated by a sexist captain bubble to the surface and shed light on their potential motives. The familiar structure helps ground the fantastical near-future circumstances, and it gives the audience something to hold onto in the early going, when a lot of scifi terminology is thrown around without much context or sense of human stakes.
Director Lauren Katz develops the crew’s interpersonal relationships well, with the two older members of the medical team (Judi Schindler and Renee Lockett) providing much needed perspective and humor, while the rivalry between engineer Baston (Catherine Dvorak) and officer Nataki (Lakecia Harris) keeps things lively, particularly at moments when Maureen Yasko’s action movie fight choreography comes into play. Ashley Yates as the by-the-book first officer Stark is subtly led into violating protocol by a fierce Jazmín Corona as Wollman, the scientist who believes the crew has a right to make history. And Jillian Leff as the youngest, most inexperienced member of the crew seems as jittery as the audience.
If the confines of a storefront space do not allow the drama to soar as high as it might, that is not necessarily a flaw. With a solid script, an open scenic design by Jessie Baldinger, and a grounded set of actors, this Babes With Blades production stands out for the risks it takes in using movement to create an alien environment, coaxing the audience to imagine what it might feel like to walk through space. Even if a woman cannot escape the patriarchy while floating through the stars, at least she can push farther than she ever has before.
DICE RATING:d10 — “Worth Going To”
TEN WORD SUMMARY:What if Agatha Christie, but it happened in outer space?
Show: “Women Of 4G”
Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company
Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 Howard St, Chicago)
I am endlessly fascinating by the scripts produced at Jackalope Theatre Company. Attend any production created by this open-hearted, full-throated organization, and you are likely to appreciate the sharp, heady stories they tell, even if you find that the narrative onstage isn’t quite your cup of tea. I have never seen a play at Jackalope that I wasn’t instantly involved in; often, I am completely floored by the company’s artistic work. This past few months alone, Jackalope has delivered two electrifying gifts, “In the Canyon” and “Dutch Masters,” both of which had much to say about how we live now. If Kenneth Linn’s “Life On Paper” doesn’t hit quite as hard, or lead to as cathartic of a release for the audience, maybe that’s okay. Sometimes, it is good to sit with characters in their day-to-dayness, to see how they live their lives, and how they make choices to improve said lives and the lives of others.
Linn has a way with concept and dialogue, and that’s apparent from word one in this production. Mitch (Joel Ewing) is a forensic accountant, whose intense need to solve one of math’s greatest puzzles lead to an epic flame-out in his past. He has been tasked with assessing the life value of the sixty-third richest man in the world, who has died in a plane crash and whose Wisconsin hometown desperately needs his posthumous funding in order to stay afloat. Standing by his side is his cousin, Ivan (Guy Wicke), who is a double-A baseball burn-out and a similar math whiz. On the opposite side of the battle is Ida (Mary Williamson), the town’s assessor, who is determined to prove that the billionaire’s value can’t be set in dollars and cents, but in impact on the local lives he boosted. The stage is set for an epic showdown over what it means to succeed or fail, win or lose, preserve or terminate. All this happens in an everyday Wisconsin town, in its many offices, restaurants, and one tiny hill that holds special meaning for Ida.
Plays involving math don’t often have a lot of actual math in them, but Linn stakes whole scenes on whether characters are able to poetically explain theoretical problems and mathematical models. His blend of awe for math and realistic expectations about flawed people makes for a fun cocktail, but at times, the larger ideas at play subsume the character work being done. Mitch starts out a closed-off jerk, and if his descriptions of math cannot make the audience relate to him, the whole project falls apart. It’s particularly important that Ida see his truth, as the two use mathematical understanding to connect romantically. Honestly, I got lost in the numbers a bit, but if Linn gave early scenes of connection as much room to breathe as he does later, confrontational scenes, then the character stakes would be clearer, and the journey we are on would seem less metaphorical and more earth-bound the whole way through.
Director Gus Menary does an excellent job with the actors, really digging into the extra-heady material, and creating back and forth rhythms that generate entertaining tennis matches. Ewing and Williamson have an off-beat chemistry that really suits the Capra-esque “Will the cynical guy make good?” storyline. Wicke is absolutely charming as a humane mechanic of numbers, and Satya Jnani Chavez plays a pivotal role at the end of the play; her upbeat humbleness does a number on the viewer. It also cannot be overstated how deep the waters run in Williamson, whose every thought sings out the depths of her character’s yearning and sadness.
Ryan Emens’ scenic design expertly nails the look of small-town offices, RV kitchens, and hotel breakfast buffets. But his use of a “Welcome to town”-esque billboard at the back of the stage hinders movement during scene changes and slows the comedic pace of the show. Stefani Azores-Gococo’s costumes evoke shaggy corporate style, while Claire Sangster’s lights lift us into the heavens at opportune moments.
If you are looking for an evening of theatre examining success and failure, “Life On Paper” fits the bill, gently unraveling individual problems until we see how our problems are always connected to, and might in fact be solved by, the lives of other people.
DICE RATING:d10 — “Worth Going To”
TEN WORD SUMMARY:Numbers add up in this tale of failure and meaning.
Disney’s The Magic Kingdom makes a perfect stand-in for the United States of America. Think about it. Happiness is its main goal, just as the pursuit of happiness is highlighted in one of our nation’s founding documents. The Magic Kingdom reinforces the idea of our melting pot in its wide-ranging cuisine choices, as well as in its attractions. And capitalism lies at the center of our democracy as much as it fuels Disney’s ever-expanding brand and fantasies. In The New Colony’s “Small World,” these parallels are reinforced by three poor Disney workers trapped inside the titular attraction during a potential terrorist attack. One is a cynical, community-rejecting lesbian; one is a Bible-quoting, potentially violent fundamentalist; and one just wants everybody to work together in order to achieve their mutual freedom.
Perhaps I am stretching. I do not know for certain whether playwrights Jillian Leff and Joe Lino intended the happiest place on Earth to serve as an allegory for our current political and social divisions. But the three points of view at the heart of this production most certainly invite that reading, and director Andrew Hobgood’s clarifying, triangular staging often places these three characters in debate-like or mediating stances.
So who are these characters? Kim (co-artistic director Stephanie Shum) believes in Disney; she grew up without parental support or friends, and working at the park is a dream come true for her. Unfortunately, she now finds herself pinned to the floor of Small World by a flag that’s impaled her leg. Becca (Jackie Seijo) finds no joy in parading tourists around the Magic Kingdom, and hides her propensity for fleeing conflict by relying on Donny (Patriac Coakley) to rescue them all. Donny knows a thing or two about first aid — though he initially seems unaware that one should never attempt to remove an impaled object — and he is determined to stay alive, with or without the help of his colleagues. He starts hinting at a conservative, if unconventional, religious background early on, and as the workers learn more about their hopeless situation, they push each other farther and farther away. Will they make it out of Small World? Will Kim make any friends in the process? Will any of us be able to get that annoying theme park music out of our heads?!
Leff and Lino’s script piles on a heap of realistic, stakes-raising issues for the characters to confront. First, there’s the matter of Kim’s blood loss. Then a corpse floats by. The stability of overhead beams becomes a question, as does the viability of two potential escape routes. This is all very gruesome stuff, and so it becomes hard to square the realistic dangers with the more absurd, allegorical elements at play. Terror at the happiest place on Earth makes for wonderful irony, but when the logistics of how long Kim would actually stay conscious begin to bump up against the larger philosophical differences between the three characters, I began to wish the absurd had appeared earlier in the play, so I would be more focused on the problems being discussed and the thematic points being made. Perhaps in the next production, these parallel lines will be smoothed out, but here, I found myself getting distracted by reality when the world of the play insisted on discussing something larger.
Still, it’s a bold script, and Hobgood leans into its humor in surprising ways. Though hampered by physical constraints, each actor finds creative approaches to pratfalls, losing his/her lunch, and dealing with the corpse of a co-worker. Shum is particularly engaging as Kim, her desperate optimism never curdling into something darker. She is easily the play’s most sympathetic character, and her command of the stage while working under the weight of an impaling object is impressive. Coakley delivers solid menace mixed with increasing hysteria, and Seijo is easily the most relatable figure, unsure what to do with herself, and uncertain that she will ever find solutions to their growing list of interpersonal and environmental problems.
Sotirios Livaditis’ set evokes a pastel-colored nightmare without laying on the irony too thick. Erik Siegling’s sound proves paramount in understanding how unstable and dangerous the surroundings are, and Jennifer Wernau creates both a believable gruesome injury and a realistic enough corpse to give this audience member the shudders. Uriel Gomez’s costumes evoke the sameness of all work uniforms, and Zack Meyer’s violence design serves the story well.
All in all, this production is an impressive achievement. The artists commit to telling a difficult story onstage, and if the larger thematic concerns get lost amid everything else, at least the ride is exciting. And isn’t customer satisfaction what Disney relishes above all?
DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A ride at Disney World turns into a real terror.
“Neverland” at Prop Thtr reimagines the landscape of its fantasy world not as an eternal playland, but as an endless nightmare. Peter Pan and his crew of Lost kids are no longer innocents to be celebrated in this piece, but terrors to be fought against, and warnings devised to make an impact on the audience.
Peter Pan (Gaby Labotka) is at first presented as we often see him — saving rejected or lost children, and bringing them to Neverland to play all day and never grow old. Hook (Kate Black-Spence) is a woman in this telling, whose hand was chopped off by Peter and thrown to the island’s crocodile. When Peter brings Wendy (Valeria Rosero), a contemporary young woman from Mexico, to Neverland, the story shifts to her perspective. Wendy sees that the Lost and Tinkerbell (Mary Iris Loncto) might not be as loyal to Peter as they seem, and that Peter’s dictatorial demands over his charges may need to be stopped.
Director Olivia Lilley and the cast and part of the design team devised this drama through a months-long rehearsal process that resulted in a wide reshaping of the Peter Pan mythology as we know it. Familiar elements are twisted, political revolution is introduced, and heretofore unseen sympathy for Hook is developed. Taken all together, these changed elements create a kind of frenzied emphasis on backstory that I’m not sure tracks one hundred percent for the audience. I found myself halfway through the play wondering whose journey we were on — Peter’s, Hook’s, or Wendy’s. The point is likely that we are meant to see their story as a trio of perspectives, but with so much of the past being brought into the present onstage, it is hard to follow what is most important towards the end of the play.
The performers, to a person, are all entertaining and grounded. Rosero provides great incredulity as the newest member of the Lost, and Labotka fuels Peter with an infectious energy that can easily turn to something darker when needed. Spence does a lot with the simplest gesture, and her quiet sorrow complicates the hero-antagonist dynamic in surprising ways. Loncto does a good job controlling Tinkerbell’s soundscape, but acting as a semi-manifestation of the petulant fairy.
And despite the script confusion, the theatricality on display in “Neverland” is joyous, and always engaging. Scenic designer Nina D’Angier creates the impression of Hook’s ship with sail cloth and a variety of ladders and ropes; the same elements create houses for the Lost and the waves of the ocean. Lighting designer Benjamin Carne evokes the dreaminess of spaces on land and sea, and takes part in the cool effect of having characters grasp onto Tinkerbell using their own personal flashlights. Ele Matelan’s Foley design brings delight and immediacy to every onstage moment, whether it’s actors creating a thunderstorm using hand clapping and stomping feet, or Loncto expressing annoyance through the banging of spoons.
“Neverland” definitely asks a lot of its audience, but also rewards the viewers with a delightful cast of characters and theatrical elements. If you want to see Peter Pan from a new angle, this is the show for you.
TEN WORD SUMMARY:What if Peter Pan meant something completely different to us?
The women of “Eclipsed” band together because they must. They are the “wives” of a commanding officer in a rebel camp during the Liberian civil war, and their survival depends on the community they build. In Pegasus Theatre’s searing production, the concept of being stronger together is put into practice by a set of fearless actors giving emotionally powerful performances.
Playwright Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne in “The Walking Dead” and Okoye in “Black Panther,” lays out the direness of the script’s wartime situation early on. She is especially skilled at establishing the stakes for our heroines: Helena (Maya V. Prentiss), or wife number one as she’s called by her “husband,” is getting older and less sexually appealing, but she proves her worth in cooking and cleaning and providing meager amounts of food for her fellow women. Bessie (Aja Singletary), or wife number three, is pregnant and convinced she will hate her child. Maima, or wife number two, has abandoned her sexual servitude by joining the rebel army, and willingly sacrifices other young girls to her previous fate so that she may survive. Into this mix comes The Girl (Sola Thompson), a fifteen year-old that at first Helena and Bessie attempt to hide before she becomes part of the wife cohort as well. Rita (Moraya Orija) reaches out to this community as a peace activist, but finds walls, emotional and physical, placed before her.
Director Ilesa Duncan encourages her performers to make the boldest possible choices, even in simple negotiations over supplies, and the resulting conflict between the women comes across loud and clear. Prentiss, in particular, is fine as the leader losing control over her charges. Orija provides a quiet center for smaller moments of grief, and Singletary gives the audience some much-needed laughs. If Reid is perhaps too one-note as the bullying soldier struggling to defend her own power, I still understand the drive of the performance. And Thompson as The Girl brings confusion and humanity to the forefront of these circumstances.
Gurira’s script makes quick work of the dynamics at play in the rebel camp, but I wonder if a slower burn to the play’s events may have allowed for the second act to ascend to more devastating heights. She establishes a mystery surrounding Maima without providing an ounce of hope that she may come back into the fold. She allows The Girl to explore the possibilities of power in her choices, but doesn’t allow those choices to land onstage, so we are left with a person stuck between two worlds by play’s end, without a sense of which way she may lean. The play tells an important story, but allowing the conflict time to expand would help the speeches about the horrors of war and loss of humanity land.
The shack these women share is small and resembles a bombed-out wreck in Jacqueline Penrod’s design. Megan Turnquist’s lighting helps us know when we are on the battlefield and when we are in a safe environment. And Owé Engobor’s costumes bring color and transformation into the dim lives of these women. But Tony Bruno’s sound design and Amanda Caputi’s acapella music really place us in the world of the play. When the women sing offstage, they invite us to join their community, for better or worse, and suggest there could be harmony here.
TEN WORD SUMMARY:A harrowing journey into wartime survival sears into one’s memory.
Grand Guignol is a tough style to pull off. Finding comedy in gore and gore in comedy takes a good sense of timing that applies to both laughs and chills. For those seeking both in this festive season, “Grand Guignol: Bad Milk” at iO will be for you.
The evening of sketches revolves around a never-deceased Walt Disney ushering the audience through his latest ride, an amalgamation of horrors he dreams up in his sleep. One scene involves an automaton family jerkily malfunctioning and slowly gaining more and more menace in the process. Another features dancing scarecrows out to claim their next victim. Still another involves a stripper baring all, and I do mean all. A mother and daughter bicker in a time travel loop. A pair of friends enter a bat-infested cave, and it’s not clear who will live to tell the tale. And every once in a while, Walt Disney pops up to reassure us that accidents happen on rides in his park all the time, but not to worry.
Writers Lisa Burton, Jim McDoniel and Brad Pike provide their all-female ensemble with a variety of violent yet daffy experiences to churn through. The Walt Disney monologues help tie together a wealth of disparate scenes, and keep the energy consistent. If there are any supplementary connections or thematics at play, they shine through via the performances, as each woman must take on a slew of child and male roles in order to tell stories about changelings and loss effectively. Having an all-woman team take on every part in a universe governed by frights and alleviated only by how much we are all in on the joke is a telling statement right now.
Performers Kathleen Kinlin, Kat Evans, Linda Orr, Nicole Vespa, and Georgie Caldwell all throw themselves into the work with glee. Many of the sketches involve spontaneous blood spurts, and they masterfully bring these across to the squicked out delight of the audience. The ensemble works well together, forming distinct relationships in each scene, and diving into bold physical choices and demented faces when the need is called for.
The final performance of “Grand Guignol: Bad Milk” occurs this coming Saturday, and is well worth it for fans of horror and comedy. If there’s one thing that helps keep the chills of real life at bay, it’s an escape in a world far more colorful and terrifying than one’s own.
TEN WORD SUMMARY:Looking for laughs with your gore? This one’s for you!
You probably shouldn’t read this write-up of Lifeline’s Theatre’s “Neverwhere,” a new staging of their 2010 adaptation from Robert Kauzlaric, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not often a production requires a convergence of nearly all the understudies, plus an understudy for an understudy who’s had maybe the luxury of a few hours’ advance notice, but this was the case. In all likelihood, this version of the show will never been seen again, but if you like a good story of triumph over adversity, read on!
There’s not enough love for the understudy in theatre settings, but they are so impressive. They’re memorized, ready, and often, they don’t get to add an artistic interpretation; they just get the task of recreating existing stage dynamics. It’s a little thankless. So, I’d like to pour a tub of Gatorade all over understudy actors like Ty Carter, Chris Hainsworth, Kim Fukawa and Scott Ray Merchant — who rolled with the punches with a script strapped to his arm! They all survived and excelled in the most inhospitable of all stage circumstances; they’re champions.
For anyone out of the loop, “Neverwhere” was originally a British television series and novel penned by Neil Gaiman in 1996, and the story translates to the stage with ease and ingenuity. Richard Mayhew (last minute pinch-hitter, Scott Ray Merchant) is a recent London transplant with a standard job and a high powered fiancée, Jessica (Michaela Petro). When he finds a wounded woman in the street and decides to give her a night’s shelter, he’s ushered against his will into London Below, a cut-throat underground society visible to members only. He has rescued noblewoman Lady Door (Samantha Newcomb), who is being hunted for her mystical unlocking capabilities. They win several intrepid allies to their cause: the Marquis De Carabas (Ty Carter, understudying) and Hunter (Kim Fukawa, understudying). They all must get to the Angel Islington (Chris Hainsworth, understudying) for answers, but there are murderous assassins like Mr. Vandemar (LaQuin Groves) and Mr. Croup (John Henry Roberts), stony Black Friars, seductive Velvets, and a hulking red-eyed beast between them and their destination.
I am a poor judge of what you’ll see and experience in performance of “Neverwhere” with the primary cast locked in, but I think there’s quite a bit of script and stage magic that would translate, no matter who is at the helm. The puppetry and creature work is incredible and thrilling, especially with the promise of a massive killer boar. The multimedia elements and atmospheric changes take us from subways to museum galleries, and convey a whole host of worlds and the daunting paths between them.
One sharp concern that came up for me was actor safety in relationship to a somewhat unforgiving set. Characters cavort on a suspended grid, climb a movable staircase, and sail through countless doors, all of which took some negotiating to work with safely. Designer Alan Donahue has crafted a set that is stunning to look at, but if pieces have the capacity to stick, slam, fall or break, it’ll make your audience terrified for all the wrong reasons.
For a piece of theatre with a generous helping of the male gaze, I have so much credit to give Samantha Newcomb as Door, and Michaela Petro as Jessica, playing the more-capable damsel and ball-busting significant other to the flailing male hero, respectively. They bring so much humor and gravity, and transcend what little substance was given to female characters coming along for a mid-nineties hero’s journey. Two other stand-outs are LaQuin Groves as Mr. Vandemar and John Henry Roberts as Mr. Croup, who are equal parts menacing and filled with rare assassin’s job dissatisfaction. Their gleeful and sardonic taunting is a joy.
Brand new artistic director Ilesa Duncan has done so much to bring actors of color and female voices to the forefront of a play that skewed heavily white and male in its original run. It’s a humorous and compelling piece of theater, no matter who steps in for the night.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Even absent the usual creatures, the show must go on.
“You don’t know what I’m thinking.” So says Hasan (Terence Sims) to Lloyd (Sam Hubbard), and the tense silence they share in the wake of these words defines “Damascus,” a timely play about identity and choice that doesn’t quite live up to its Pinter pauses, though Strawdog’s expansive production showcases performances that build mystery and evoke questions.
Hasan is a van driver at the Minneapolis airport. He is deeply in debt, attempting to make ends meet by using his van both for work and as a crash pad. When Lloyd bangs on his passenger’s side window, desperate to be driven to Chicago and catch a connecting flight to California in order to visit his dying mother, Hasan reluctantly agrees to leave the city, eventually demanding Lloyd pay double his initial fee. As the two drive, they face larger concerns about what is right and wrong, and what we owe to one another in times of danger.
To say more would spoil the plot, but Bennett Fisher’s script gets a lot of mileage out of the cultural misunderstandings and microaggressions that Lloyd wages against Hasan at first. The two men come from entirely different worlds — Hasan a Somali immigrant who doesn’t remember his childhood in Africa, and Lloyd a well-to-do college student who seems to think that studying civil war is the same thing as experiencing it. Hasan is a prickly man, hard to pin down with chat about his background, and in fact, we never fully learn what drives him beyond a need to survive day to day. Lloyd is easier to see, at least initially, but when the tables turn, and Hasan asks questions of him, terrifying new motivations reveal themselves, and alter the trajectory of the play.
Director Cody Estle is faithful, I believe, to the playwright’s vision, though I question the amount of space in this production. There is a lot of silence in this world, and most of it feels inorganically injected by the playwright, rather than developed between the actors from moment to moment. I could be wrong, but something about the scenic structure makes me suspect that Fisher felt doling very little information out over long stretches of quiet would adequately build tension between his two leads. This can work when we know the characters and their wants well, and the turn Lloyd takes halfway through the play does pump up the dramatic conflict enormously. But Fisher does not help his production team by allowing so few specifics about Hasan and Lloyd to come to light. In order for the audience to invest in their relationship, they cannot remain ciphers for quite so long, and the silence doesn’t build to decisions so much as it builds to more hedging and stalling. If the play is a thriller, as it is described by Estle in the program note, then more flesh and blood needs to be exposed in its eighty-five minutes.
That said, the director does fine work with Sims and Hubbard, as well as with Eleni Pappageorge in a variety of roles where she encounters these men on the road. The script may keep Hasan and Lloyd from connecting, but you never fail to read each actor’s thoughts as they sit together, fighting over the radio. Such attention to detail is important in the high stakes scenario they enter, and both are dedicated to find common ground, even as their characters grow farther apart.
Jeffrey Kmiec’s scenic design is cleverly done, showcasing the uncovered steel frame of the van, stripping away artifice in the same fashion as Hasan and Lloyd are meant to do. The van rotates onstage, indicating miles travelled, and works in tandem with flashing lights designed by John Kelly. Those lights indicate passage of time, or broken moments between the men. The theatricalized nature of these elements doesn’t always track, as the more heightened lighting moments don’t match the realistic text, but sound designer Sarah Espinoza’s radio static and contemporary hits station ground the production overall.
While “Damascus” may not fully pay off on the dread it builds over its road trip from Minneapolis to Chicago, the production still manages to leave the audience with questions about its characters, and questions about what we might do, were we faced with impossible choices and intractable philosophies about the modern world.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Two men confront their motivations on a tense road trip.
DIE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”
Company: Strawdog Theatre Company
Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)