Review: “The Secretaries” (About Face Theatre)

Erin Barlow, Lauren Sivak, Sadieh Rifai, Meghan Reardon/Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Erin Barlow, Lauren Sivak, Sadieh Rifai, Meghan Reardon/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: The Secretaries

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 19

The secretaries don’t murder the men at their local lumber mill because the lumberjacks are bad people. The women cut up their victims, each getting a turn at the chainsaw, because the ladies themselves are morally bankrupt. An important distinction, it turns out. The Greek chorus of office assistants we meet in “The Secretaries” may declare defiantly that their story has no moral, but the loopy satire that revels in their spilled guts and gore says otherwise. Shot through the play’s campy excess is this grain of truth: women become dangerous simply because they are women, and every action they take deserves scrutiny.

Written by the Five Lesbian Brothers, and now receiving its Chicago premiere production courtesy of About Face Theatre, “The Secretaries” embraces tropes from every trashy outlet possible — from lesbian pulp novels, to B-horror flicks, to tawdry revenge tales — all the while lampooning societal hysteria about women in general. The script tackles ludicrous attitudes surrounding menstrual cycles and the fear that butch women will turn feminine women into lesbians, wrapping the writers’ critiques in an entertaining, sharp-edged package. That this production dulls its knife throughout the run-time does not diminish the laughs and glee, but the lack of frenzy in the pacing, and pauses for breath between scenes, makes this experience a safer proposition than intended.

Patty (Erin Barlow) is new to the office pool at Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. She loves working under demanding executive assistant Susan (Kelli Simpkins), who has formed her underlings into a cult that exercises extreme devotion to Slim Fast and celibacy. Competitive Ashley (Meghan Reardon) doesn’t appreciate coming in second to Patty in the “secretary of the month” contest. Peaches (Sadieh Rifai) is scrutinized by male higher-ups for her weight. And Dawn (Lauren Sivak) nurses a not-so-secret crush on the newbie in the office. Once Patty begins a romantic relationship with foreman Buzz (also played by Sivak), the clique moves quickly to integrate her into their monthly murder scenarios, and she must choose whether to be a good girl or a bad, possibly bisexual, killer.

Director Bonnie Metzgar encourages her ensemble to milk every larger than life emotional breakdown and noirish direct address moment, with mostly stellar results. Barlow is at her best when she transitions into present day, world-weary Patty, speaking to the audience with the dead eyes of a woman who’s in too deep and has seen too much. Sivak’s exaggeration of lunk-headed masculine posture is a real treat, as is her insistent seduction of Barlow while playing Dawn. Meanwhile, Rifai anchors one of the play’s few sincere moments, when she recounts her dieting problems to our heroine. In a role that could be played solely for comedic effect (her lip-syncing to pop songs during scenic transitions provides plenty of laughs), Rifai adds heart to the proceedings. Ultimately, it’s Simpkins as the boss who sets the tone for the other performers; her icy Susan commands the stage with angular poses and ludicrous sexual advances. Her showdown with Sivak over their celibacy agreement is largely memorable because it features sexual gymnastics that defy logic while tapping into the zany abandon of desire.

Meghan Reardon, Kelli Simpkins, Sadieh Rifai, Lauren Sivak, Erin Barlow/Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Meghan Reardon, Kelli Simpkins, Sadieh Rifai, Lauren Sivak, Erin Barlow/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

While the actresses expertly mine the play’s dramatic tropes for comedy gold, the pacing of this production still feels off. I wonder if the two hour run-time is due less to the exaggerated performances, and more to the design elements at play. I thoroughly enjoyed the lurid spray of Rachel K. Levy’s pink, purple, and blood-red lights, which were often contrasted by stark white squares highlighting forbidden office windows. However, there were so many cues to run through from scene to scene, a pared-down approach might have helped the pace. Likewise, William Boles’ revolving set delighted, with the office furniture never arriving in the same spot twice. But the constant movement on such a small stage slowed the performance, and drained some of the energy from busy actors.

At one point during the play, a couple of men in front of me felt the need to look away from the murderous women onstage. Not because anyone held an axe or a chainsaw. Not because their emotional blackmail was reaching a climactic point. No, the guys shuddered because the women held out used tampons, to be collected by Susan for never-explained research. Likely, it is the least sinister thing that happens across the entire production. Yet the Five Lesbian Brothers are smart to know it will evoke discomfort. “The Secretaries” points out, using trashy cultural artifacts, that the only thing we cannot forgive is being female in the first place.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I can never unsee what happened between Dawn and Susan.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “The House of Blue Leaves” (Raven Theatre)

Noah Simon, Sarah Hayes, and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.
Noah Simon, Sarah Hayes, and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.

Show: The House of Blue Leaves

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue: Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 9

If a trio of beer-obsessed nuns chasing a bomb-wielding Army deserter around a delusional songwriter’s apartment provides few laughs for this reviewer, then it might be time to admit that John Guare’s work is not for me. I have tried and tried to enjoy his plays, but every time I encounter his daffy characters and attempts at criticizing the expectations of mainstream culture, I find myself counting the minutes until curtain call.

That caveat out of the way, I must admit to being somewhat invested in Raven Theatre’s “The House of Blue Leaves,” due to a few strong performances, and one or two moments of inspired physical comedy. That chase sequence may not have rated a smile, but the scramble around an obstacle course of overturned furniture had my mouth hanging open in astonishment.

Our ho-hum hero Artie (Jon Steinhagen) longs for a musical career in 1960’s Hollywood, writing tunes for all the top crooners. In order to forge this new path, his girlfriend Bunny (Sarah Hayes) convinces him to call old friend Billy (Noah Simon), a hot-shot director who might connect him with the necessary big-wigs. There’s only one obstacle standing in the way of the couple’s move to La-La Land: Artie’s mentally ill wife Bananas (Kelli Strickland), who refuses to take her pills or accept her husband’s half-hearted attempts to abandon her. What the nuns, a wayward soldier, and even the Pope have to do with this conflict, I will leave to the imagination.

Guare’s script needs to be meaner if he intends to pull off the growing desperation Artie demonstrates at play’s end. The playwright’s jokes and insults do not cut, he is overly fond of hokey pop culture references, and his characters are not given the necessary time to elicit our sympathy — unless one counts slapdash direct address moments that fill in context without engaging audience emotions. Director Joann Montemurro overcompensates by having many of the actors ham it up onstage, but that pays few dividends. “House of Blue Leaves” is the very definition of safe theatre; it longs to appear dangerous, but its themes are instantly recognizable, while its whack-a-doodle world gives one little to latch on to in the way of concrete stakes.

The saving grace lies in Steinhagen’s sweaty performance. The audience cares about Artie only because the actor underplays all his biggest complaints. Steinhagen is quieter than any of the men and women he shares the stage with, and that is how it should be. A viscerally angry Artie would not be surprising, nor would we chuckle when an obnoxious Artie played his signature mediocre song over and over again in a mock audition. A milquetoast schlub in a room full of farcical nimrods will grab attention. Our song and dance man is not only an accomplished Chicago playwright (“Blizzard ‘67” being a personal favorite of mine), but he is a smart actor, winning our sympathy by confidently doing a lot with little fanfare.

Kelli Strickland and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.
Kelli Strickland and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.

Strickland’s turn lies on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Her Bananas is a human disaster, whose pain may be dulled by medication, but it never fully leaves her. Strickland shuffles from place to place in the apartment, always laser-focused on thwarting Artie’s plans, and her loneliness emanates out to the viewer. Her direct address moment actually works in performance, because Guare sympathizes with her. But he also hampers the lady of the house. Bananas’ tantrums and play-acting as a puppy betray the character’s blend of absurdism and kooky Neil Simon caricature. This is not a welcome concoction, because her breakdowns have absolutely no impact on the escalating comedic proceedings whatsoever. At least Strickland pulls a sense of urgency into the farcical moments of the play. That is desperately needed.

The overstuffed set (designed by Merje Veski, with props by Mary O’Dowd) provides ample opportunity for engaging bits of comedic business. There is the aforementioned chase, generated with abandon by fight choreographer David Woolley, as well as the ping-ponging between kitchen and living room executed by an excitable Hayes. And I have to admit, Strickland’s sitting up for a pet on the head became endearing towards the end of the production.

So the show is not, by any means, a total loss. The actors do what they can with a wobbly play, though the ending is a true head-scratcher, given the lack of investment that’s come before. Do with that what you will. I plan to avoid Guare’s work in the future.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Weak script does not stifle strong performances in revival.

RATING: d6 — “Has Some Merit”

Review: “A Splintered Soul” (ARLA Productions)

Eliza Stoughton, Nnik Kourtis, and Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz
Eliza Stoughton, Nik Kourtis, and Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Show: A Splintered Soul

Company: ARLA Productions

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

How do we know what is right? Do we weigh our choices against past experiences, or decide the best course of action based on gut instinct? Do we approach each person we meet as a friend until further evidence proves them false? How much do we depend on others to direct our moral compasses?

These questions thread through the plot of “A Splintered Soul,” Alan Lester Brooks’ drama about Holocaust survivors living in 1947 San Francisco. A Midwest premiere presented by ARLA productions, the play concerns Simon (Craig Spidle), a revered rabbi and freedom fighter from Poland. He has formed a de facto community with fellow survivors: conflicted Gerta (Eliza Stoughton), shy Mordechi (Nik Kourtis), and cynical Sol (Matt Mueller). Happy to dole out advice to any young charge, Simon eagerly adopts newcomers Harold (Curtis Edward Jackson) and Elisa (Jessica Kingsdale), a newly arrived brother and sister with immigration issues. Convinced the man who brought them into the U.S. is mistreating the pair, Simon decides to take the law into his own hands — for their sake as well as for his own.

Perhaps I have indicated too much of the plot in the above description. But Simon is primed to make destructive choices before a single character joins him onstage. Ghosts haunt the man, whispering in his ear, thanks to an evocative sound design by Christopher Kriz. We witness firsthand how past decisions keep him from communing with his law-abiding American neighbors. It helps that Spidle brings coiled strength to his portrayal of the rabbi. His righteous anger, when unfurled, betrays a quick willingness to punch above his weight class.

Director Keira Fromm draws lived-in, solid performances from her entire ensemble. She encourages lots of movement across the long and wide stage, which helps minimize the feeling that Stage 773 spaces are too cavernous to create intimate theatre. How the young adults treat the tea cups and pastries present in Simon’s home expresses a lot about them, with Mueller bouncing from seat to seat like a petulant child, and Stoughton refilling refreshments and cleaning up after all the men. When each survivor pronounces his or her truth, Fromm plants them close to the audience, so we cannot close our eyes and ears. The performers are fierce in telling their stories, but Fromm also allows them moments of quiet, so the material about concentration camps never feels exploitative or overplayed.

If only Brooks’ script felt as unpredictable. The playwright has a strong sense of dramatic structure; his characters make dynamic choices onstage that have direct and terrible consequences. But the story kept me at arm’s length, rather than drawing me deeper into Simon’s dilemma. I considered thematic questions of right and wrong, but that was because the characters argued directly about assimilation into American society, even holding a fake trial to test-drive whether or not harming a man they’ve never met is a viable option. “A Splintered Soul” asks the audience to believe that absence of evidence actually is evidence of absence. Simon never confronts Harold and Elisa’s terrible mentor onstage, so one suspects far too early on that there is more to the newbies’ backstories than what we have been told.

Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz
Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set and lighting design work in concert to contrast Simon’s everyday living room and the world of his mind. Sprayed with harsh white light, his memories provide little comfort, except when the voice of his deceased wife calls. The lights then shift to a warm yellow highlighting her portrait. Perhaps this combination of choices would seem over the top in a less emotionally fraught production. Here, it sharply highlights the fragile state of Simon’s psyche.

Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes deftly communicate quick emotional transformations, especially in the case of Stoughton. Over the course of the play, she and the siblings spruce up, adopting more and more American styles of dress, leaving behind the more traditional looks displayed by Simon and Mordechi. The implication seems to be that these men are too haunted to move on from the past.

Overall, this is an accomplished production; it contains well-wrought performances, considered design elements, sensitive direction, and complex moral questions. Perhaps if the script were a bit messier, a bit less geared towards one pivotal discovery, the experience would be shattering. As it is, “Splintered” gives the audience pause. But it may not shatter anyone’s soul.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Smart, sensitive direction and design work strengthen predictable story.

RATING: d10 — “Worth  Going To”


Review: “In The Time of the Butterflies” (Teatro Vista)

Flavia Martínez, Ayssette Muñóz, Rinska Carrasco, and Sari Sánchez/Photo: Joel Maisonet
Flavia Martínez, Ayssette Muñóz, Rinska Carrasco, and Sari Sánchez/Photo: Joel Maisonet

Show: In The Time of the Butterflies

Company: Teatro Vista

Venue: Victory Gardens Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 18

“In The Time of the Butterflies” begins with a dance and ends with a song. In between these musical moments lie arguments about sacrifice and purpose, along with tense political confrontations that result in imprisonment and execution. One might think this a strange mix of elements, but the drama is equally well-served by poetry and radical calls for change.

Teatro Vista’s Chicago premiere, adapted by Caridad Svich from Julia Álvarez’s fictionalized account of real-life events, concerns the present and past of Dedé Mirabal (portrayed as an adult by Charin Álvarez and as a young woman by Rinska Carrasco). An American writer, also played by Carrasco, has come to the Dominican Republic to hear the story of Dedé’s sisters — known by legend and code as “the butterflies” — who lost their lives while working to unseat dictator Rafael Trujillo during the 1960’s. Dedé recounts the birth of Minerva’s (Flavia Martínez) fiery activism, the simmering conflict within the grieving Patria (Sari Sánchez), and the burgeoning political beliefs of Mate (Ayssette Muñóz). Meanwhile, the writer struggles with whether or not she is capable of doing justice to the Mirabals’ experiences.

The play covers an epic chunk of the historical record, starting in the 1930’s when the girls still lived under the protection of their capitulating father, and ending right after their deaths. Though certain events are rushed through during direct address monologues, Svich shrewdly gives each woman a specific emotional journey. The audience understands how all the injustices Minerva witnessed would lead her to take part in a revolution. The loss of a child shapes Patria’s choice to lead a coup. And Mate’s evolution from boy-crazy teen to defiant prisoner is particularly thrilling to behold.

The three mourned sisters are so fascinating, one wonders whether the play would hit harder without its present-day frame. Thematically, I understand why the older Dedé must council a reflection of her younger self to act, having stayed clear of revolutionary activities and lost her sisters regardless. But Svich does not have enough stage time to generate stakes for an unknown author’s inability to recount the sisters’ full stories. The writer’s anger over the Mirabals’ deaths, and her drive to wrench something meaningful from that loss, is relatable for a contemporary audience living in a free society. But we learn so little about this scribe’s life, and the elder Dedé’s interactions with her, that her internal conflict cannot hold the same weight as the external obstacles threatening Patria, Minerva, and Mate.

Sari Sánchez and Ayssette Muñóz/Photo: Joel Maisonet
Sari Sánchez and Ayssette Muñóz/Photo: Joel Maisonet

Director Ricardo Gutiérrez takes special care celebrating and cementing the sisters’ relationships across their incredible lifetimes. During their first scene together, the foursome discusses romantic partners and dancing with infectious playfulness. By the time they are driving to visit their husbands in prison (a trip Patria, Minerva, and Mate will not return from), a similar energetic conversation about purses and shoes breaks out, indicating that their joy for life and concern for one another’s well-being has not diminished. Muñóz especially stands out in a vivacious, joking performance, while Sánchez carries the audience up mountains of emotional highs and down valleys of parental devastation in a monologue remembering the burial of her first born. Carrasco communicates the deep frustration of those left behind whenever she spars with Martínez, and Álvarez’s quiet attitude speaks volumes. As these women age and endure, they wield Svich’s poetic descriptions of waste and war like weapons, and Gutiérrez encourages their investment in recounting lost lives.

And then there is the music. Throughout, dance and song play an integral part in the sisters’ world. A waltz is used to proposition Minerva at a fancy political party, while the Mirabals embrace salsa as a way to escape their troubles in the family courtyard. A propagandist DJ spins records supporting Trujillo’s leadership, and Minerva and Mate write a song of protest while facing torture and rape in prison. Svich’s imagistic dialogue highlights the heightened nature of treacherous times, but sound designer Brandon Reed and composer Gabe Ruíz’s music buoys the characters’ spirits, while also invoking the ghosts that haunt Dedé later in life.

Because a world without memory is not one worth living in, the play postulates. The elder Dedé may not remember events precisely as they happened, and certain stories are colored with hallucinatory sights and sounds. But that does not mean both personal beauty and political movements should not be preserved in equal measure.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Wonderful ensemble work a highlight of this poetic, political drama.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Women of Lockerbie” (AstonRep Theatre Company)

Morgan Manasa, Barbara Button, Hayley Rice, Lorraine Freund, Sara Pavlak McGuire, and Alexandra Bennett/Photo: Jeremiah Barr
Morgan Manasa, Barbara Button, Hayley Rice, Lorraine Freund, Sara Pavlak McGuire, and Alexandra Bennett/Photo: Jeremiah Barr

Show: “The Women of Lockerbie”

Company: AstonRep Theatre Company

Venue: The Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 16

Upon entering a theatre space, I make it a custom not to look at the set until I am seated. My goal is to view the design elements as whole, then take note of important details. While searching for a chair before AstonRep Theatre Company’s “The Women of Lockerbie,” now playing at The Raven Theatre, I found myself drawn to one haunting item onstage. It was a floral patterned blouse, nothing flashy or out of the ordinary. But it was suspended in mid-air, hanging from wires, as if eternally falling.

This piece of clothing, along with several sets of pants and t-shirts and sweaters also hanging over the stage, represents the sum total left behind by the victims of Pan Am flight 103, which met a fiery end over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.  Playwright Deborah Brevoort sets her tale of forgiveness and grief seven years after the disaster. American couple Bill (Jeff Brown) and Madeline Livingston (Amy Kasper) are visiting the town in search of closure for their son’s death; he was on board the plane because he was returning from his time studying abroad in the United Kingdom. A community group known as the “Women of Lockerbie,” headed by determined leader Olive (Alexandra Bennett), help the couple mourn, while hatching plans to obtain the other victims’ clothing, wash it, and return the suitcases to their grieving families.

Inspired by the story of real-life community activists, who collected and cleaned items left behind by the crash, “The Women of Lockerbie” is at its most poignant when characters describe their first interactions with the event. Bennett places particular, heartbreaking emphasis that she, like Kasper, was baking a pie when the plane went down. The Women (embodied by Barbara Button, Lorraine Freund, Morgan Manasa, and Hayley Rice) each get a chance to tell their own tales of discovered wreckage and twisted bodies, and the actresses use those stories to connect directly with the audience and with each other. Manasa and Rice were most notable to me due to their warm relationship; whenever Rice revealed gruesome details about the day, Manasa was nearby, hand outstretched to take hers.

Morgan Manasa, Barbara Button, and Alexandra Bennett/Photo: Jeremiah Barr
Morgan Manasa, Barbara Button, and Alexandra Bennett/Photo: Jeremiah Barr

A solid ensemble is key to this script’s success, as Brevoort de-emphasizes most onstage plot in favor of a forty-five minute storytelling round. Like the ancient Greek dramatists before her, she believes the answers to present problems lie in the past, but unlike Sophocles and Aeschylus, the questions Kasper and Brown hurl at the Women — about why their son had to die, about how best to process grief — do not have concrete answers. There is no banishment for this plague, as there is with the murderer king Oedipus. Thus, the script sometimes repeats the same sadness over and over without relief or dramatic consequence, and that can become trying for the audience. Director Robert Tobin encourages sincerity at all times from each cast member, so their words are impossible to drown out, but more variety in the anger and hope expressed, especially by Kasper and Brown, might have made the play seem less cloying in certain scenes. The final moments of the production, however, are packed with quiet power, as the Women and Kasper and Bennett unite in a single cleansing action that moves the viewer.

The set, designed by Jeremiah Barr, includes suspended clothing and clothing that litters the stage, so the actors can barely move without stepping on someone else’s socks and shorts. It effectively literalizes the ghosts haunting Lockerbie, while projection work by Tobin mostly muddles this set-up. The landscape projected on the space’s back wall clearly represents the rolling hills of Lockerbie, but the Women’s magical descriptions of their environment far exceed any two-dimensional picture one could find. There was also a virus warning screen that popped up over the projection early in the play, which took me out of the action for a minute or so. Perhaps it would have been better, as with all the stories shared, to leave the moors of Scotland to the imagination.

“The Women of Lockerbie” is a powerful piece of work, and provides a showcase for several emotionally charged performances. If the script takes its time to render the dramatic action, at least the actors are dedicated to fiercely displaying the truths of their disrupted lives. They move towards something akin to closure, even as the left-behind clothing continues to dangle above their heads.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Women in mourning attempt to heal after the Lockerbie disaster.

RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Review: “Trash” (New American Folk Theatre)

Anthony Whitaker and Jamal Howard/Photo: Paul Clark
Anthony Whitaker and Jamal Howard/Photo: Paul Clark

Show: “Trash”

Company: New American Folk Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 19

The promotional material for “Trash” describes the production by way of three unrelated cultural ingredients: “The Glass Menagerie,” the life of Anna Nicole Smith, and TV phenomenon “Hoarders.” While not an inaccurate description of this Midwest premiere by playwright Johnny Drago, the campy script eventually scraps its zany cultural smorgasbord in favor of a more traditional family secrets drama, and thus, loses some of the zest that defines the first act.

Produced by the New American Folk Theatre, “Trash” centers on Jinx Malibu (Anthony Whitaker), the washed-up star of smutty spy movies known as the “Rocket Pussy” series. She is addicted to both diet and sleep pills, and she lives in a garbage-filled house with her survivalist mother, Othermomma (Carrie Campana), her overeager and always pants-free son Loogie (Kirk Jackson), and her dreamy yet extraordinarily sheltered daughter Smudge (Caitlin Jackson). When a young man from California knocks on the door and insists on meeting Jinx, she quickly dubs him Mr. Hollywood (Jamal Howard), and assumes he is there to jumpstart her forgotten career. Despite his protestations, she launches into a full-scale pitch to revive the “Rocket Pussy” films, turning her family inside out in the process.

There are elements of Tennessee Williams’ Gentleman Caller in this play, but more noticeable is the thick veil of self-delusion that Jinx uses to smother the other characters; she shares this trait with that mother to end all mothers, Amanda Wingfield. Every moment is simply another scene for Jinx, another opportunity to wow the non-existent paparazzi, and gain love from her crush of invisible fans. Director Derek Van Barham underlines this attitude by having Whitaker look directly at the audience throughout the performance, often speaking directly to her admirers with a glassy-eyed gaze that conveys she hears cheers, even when staring at a wall. Late in the second act, Caitlin Jackson adopts a similar expression when repeating her closely held belief that she and her absentee father will be reunited in the wider world, if she ever gets the chance to leave the house.

Each character desperately clings to fantasies without having the actual wherewithal to achieve said dreams, and that makes for a less than ideal viewing experience. None of the actors shy away from the outsized nature of this material; Whitaker’s Norma Desmond routine elevates the script when the stakes appear flat, and Jackson’s Loogie gives his all when called upon to play a series of hot-shot characters required to sleep with Rocket Pussy. But the audience understands immediately that Mr. Hollywood can never revive Jinx’s career. The dramatic tension seems to lie in the family learning this fact while doing their level best to sell Howard on the new flick. But Drago never allows horrible reality to sink in. Rather than watching Jinx and Loogie and Smudge do the destructive work of continually restoring the fantasy, viewers are trapped in their gullible mindset, and thus, feel smarter than the people they are meant to root for. When the spell is never broken, do we care whether or not the magic impresses?

Jamal Howard, Carrie Campana, Anthony Whitaker, and Caitlin Jackson/Photo: Paul Clark
Jamal Howard, Carrie Campana, Anthony Whitaker, and Caitlin Jackson/Photo: Paul Clark

Drago complicates the plot by dropping a major revelation into the backend of the play, warping the story from a genre exercise until it becomes an O’Neill-heavy relationship drama. This switch might have worked, were the cracks in the family foundation allowed more time and space to grow beforehand.

Frankly, the design elements do a better job representing the push and pull between the garbage mountain apartment and the lively inner life fostered by Jinx. Set designer Clint Greene and set dresser Eric Shoemaker fill a faux wood-paneled living room with so much newspaper, the space resembles a dumpster. Light designer Cody Ryan, by contrast, fills the entrance to Jinx’s bedroom with bright yellows, so her shadow always precedes her entrance, and gives a horror movie feel to her appearances. When enacting “Rocket Pussy” with her children, deep purples and bright pinks accentuate trips into the dangerous blue yonder. It is through said light changes that we enter Jinx’s mind, and see the world as she wishes it be; the production delights in these moments.

“Trash” might not result in a consistent stew of high art and pop culture guilty pleasures, but the hardworking performers and smart design choices add flavor to the lack of cohesion. If you are a fan of camp and train wreck celebrities, this production provides ample servings of both.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Entertaining performances and sharp direction cannot salvage a divided script.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Mosque Alert” (Silk Road Rising)

Show: Mosque Alert

Company: Silk Road Rising

Amy J. Carle, Franl Sawa, and Steve Silver/Photo: Airan Wright
Amy J. Carle, Frank Sawa, and Steve Silver/Photo: Airan Wright

Venue: Chicago Temple Building (77 W Washington St)

Die Roll: 5

One family is helping finance Naperville’s newest mosque. One family is defending the mosque’s religious teachings. And one family is revealing the community’s hidden bigotry via heinous websites and counter-protests.

These close-knit yet fracturing units are the focus of “Mosque Alert”, Jamil Khoury’s world premiere play about the intersections of zoning laws and Islamophobia, currently running at Silk Road Rising. Inspired by the controversy surrounding the “Ground Zero Mosque,” Khoury’s script has had a long history, starting its life as a ten-minute play commissioned by the American Theatre Company, and gaining new momentum as an online dialogue project. As a teaching artist for Silk Road in 2013, I had the pleasure of integrating the ten-minute “Mosque Alert” into educational lesson plans about acceptance and culture clash, so I viewed this production with extreme interest.

Imam Mostafa Khalil (Frank Sawa) introduces us to architectural plans for the new mosque early on in the show, via sharp projections designed by Michael Stanfill. Mostafa hopes the “community center” will bring Naperville together, while his wife Aisha (Amy J. Carle) worries that he is erasing Islam by adhering to name changes wrought by slick businessman Tawfiq Qabbani (Rom Barkhordar) and chamber of commerce head Ted Baker (Mark Ulrich). Tensions intensify once Ted’s brother Daniel (Steve Silver) publishes a website making racist claims about Muslims, and Naperville is torn into factions over approval of the proposed worship space.

Director Edward Torres contends with many overlapping circles in this play. Ted and Tawfiq are not only connected through work; their wives are also best friends. As if that didn’t provide enough story, their adult children struggle with friendships and intertwine romantically while conflict over the mosque grows. Torres smartly stages group scenes through sharp pictoral contrast. Even if you miss part of a character’s pro- or con-mosque argument, the visuals make it clear which character is on which side in the debate.  Scenes in the privacy of one’s own home provide a wider range of movement, often escalating into circles where spouses are ready to pounce on one another. Office scenes display a stiffer, more contained action, and outdoor scenes between the young adults are all sharp diagonals and two-against-one triangles.

At times, the actors appeared to be searching for lines, but those moments were brief, and overshadowed by a few powerful performances. Of particular note was the chemistry between Sawa and Carle, whose marriage felt hard-won and lived in. Carle excels in scenes where she must confront others’ assumptions about her religious beliefs, using stone-faced politeness to her advantage. Sawa’s optimism slowly unravels over the course of the play, and his warm-hearted openness keeps the audience from calling him naïve. While many will come away from this production remembering Silver’s fiery rhetoric, I will cherish the quiet moments between husband and wife.

Sahar Dika, Frank Sawa/Photo: Airan Wright
Sahar Dika, Frank Sawa/Photo: Airan Wright

Set designer Dan Stratton lays a beige carpet across the stage floor, allowing the space to transform into a living room, a city office, and several public meeting spaces with ease. The furniture of each of the three families is similarly bland, with throw pillow accents displaying their takes on suburban décor. Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting gives intensity to the proceedings, and Thomas Dixon’s sound design, particularly the pre-show and intermission music, set the mood of a divided community.

“Mosque Alert” tackles a range of contemporary subjects, from fear of Islam, to the crooked politics of zoning laws, to national and individual responses to acts of terror. Khoury’s strongest argument scenes revolve around specifics, when polemics are organically woven into the texture of the families and their stories: Was it necessary for Mostafa to shave his beard and present a friendly face to his white neighbors? Should Tawfiq’s daughter wear a hijab to the town hall meeting about the mosque plans? If Daniel is a bigot, but supports his gay nephew, shouldn’t he win sympathy from his family, especially considering parts of the Muslim world reject homosexuality? When Khoury asks his characters to make choices about their public and private beliefs, he involves the audience in the outcome for this mosque. When he explores jargon about offstage characters wheeling and dealing for the mosque land, it becomes difficult to invest in the action. Storylines involving women other than Aisha feel like they need more time to develop, and the ending for the play arrives abruptly, with the overlapping family circles reaching a détente, rather than a conclusion.

Perhaps that is what Khoury intended. Perhaps he wanted to leave the action slightly unfinished, to motivate the audience to reflect on how to best defend religious freedom in its own communities. Whatever the reason, “Mosque Alert” still provides plenty to mull over on the train trip home.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Strong performances anchor this spirited debate with no easy answers.

RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”