Review: “Martyr” (Steep Theatre Co.)

Martyr2: (left to right) Travis Coe and Brando Crawford in Steep Theatre's production of Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Joanie Schultz. Photo by Lee Miller.
Martyr: (left to right) Travis Coe and Brando Crawford in Steep Theatre’s production of Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Joanie Schultz. Photo by Lee Miller.

Show: Martyr

Company: Steep Theatre Co.

Venue: Steep Theatre (1115 W. Berwyn)

Die Roll: 4

“Martyr” turns the intersection of religious fanaticism and lost youth sideways in a fascinating, terrifying study.  A stellar example of new theatre coming in from Europe, the play was penned by German playwright Mayer von Mayenburg as a response to the rise Islamic fundamentalism in Germany. You will, however, find no mention of the Qu’ran in “Martyr”. Instead, the religious text that catalyses the action is the Bible.

Young Benjamin Sudel (Brando Crawford) is in the throes of high school angst, trying to figure out where he belongs. In his search for meaning he lands on the Bible as a guidebook, but quickly transforms from a moderate Bible-thumper to a full-on fire-and-brimstone evangelist who believes in the absolute literal interpretation of the book. In a determinedly secular world, this shortly puts him in contention with almost everyone around him. It’s not his sudden adherence to Christianity that is the real problem, though – it’s Benjamin’s insistence that the world realign to his new-found rules, which happen to be extremely misogynistic and homophobic.

The conflicts that grow from Benjamin’s increasingly volatile actions affect his hard-working single mother (Cindy Marker), his well-meaning phys ed teacher (Steve Schine), and puts him head to head with his guidance counselor, played by Kendra Thulin. Perhaps his only ally is Georg, (played by the excellent Travis Coe), a classmate similarly outcast from the student populace on account of a short leg and a speech disability. Georg finds in Benjamin someone to admire and emulate, and though he quickly falls in line with his charismatic friend, he somehow loses none of his sweet affability.

This script is phenomenal and unfolds in heightened, jolting scraps of action. It’s a shame, then, that instead of embracing the style of the play, which includes (at times) somewhat-stilted language and broad characters, director Joanie Schultz decided to convert the performance style into the typical realism American audiences expect. This is a play about radical idealism, and verisimilitude only undermines its impact. The end result was a lot of one-level acting, with characters attaining a high level of passion and then continuing at that level for minutes on end. Whenever anyone got impassioned, they stopped reacting to other events occurring in the moment that should have had an impact on their character.

Still, Chicago needs as much exposure to non-American theater as we can get. I’m glad Steep chose to tackle this play, and thereby challenge their audience with a different spin on a familiar theme. I wish the commitment to style had been braver, but “Martyr” is well worth a look.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: “Edgy, jarring examination of young fanaticism; misses the stylistic boat.”

DICE RATING: d10 – Worth Going To