Review: “18 Months After November” (Contraband Theatre)

E.K. Doolin/Photo: Dustin Hageland.

In a time of uncertainty, theatre artists have spent the past several months creating work that speaks to our times, simply through the format with which the theatre is delivered. Ingenuity has led us to telling stories in unforeseen circumstances, stories about immediate issues, such as fascism, connection, and sorrow.

Director and playwright Jacob Juntunen has brought all these subjects to the forefront in Contraband Theatre’s virtual production of “18 Months After November.” Presented online in a series of scenes made up of scattered Facetime calls and urgent conference call negotiations, the world of the production is not so far from our own. America is divided along political lines, as in our reality; only here, Juntunen has taken the recent fascist turns within our Congress and presidency, and spun them to terrifying conclusions. Thus, eighteen months after the presidential election, California has seceded from the Union, and liberal Emma (E.K. Doolin) is struggling to survive in Missouri, plotting with loved ones Anne (Stephanie Stroud) and Jen (Deanna Lee) to escape to California.

But driving across country now means facing blocks at various borders, fending off unwanted advances from those she stays with (Jennifer Remke and Minoru Jackson), or battling a bureaucrat (Peter Moore) who demands she give up her most vital supplies before crossing into into his territory. Academics and those in the LGBTQIA community are primary targets, but anyone is suspicious, even old friends you think you can trust.

A clever shift in the final minutes of the play completes the chilling warning of Juntunen’s script, and the intelligence of the recorded calls brings a full urgency to each step on Emma’s journey. Doolin carries her increasing fear and paranoia in steely reserve, and Moore can always be counted on to bring an untenable bargain out in his favor.

Editor Dustin Hageland creates a startling pace, cutting from scene to scene with precision, and letting the final moment land with clarity and crushing finality. Juntunen smartly suggests the space these characters inhabit off-line with a wide swat of backgrounds introducing the audience to an American on the verge of an apocalypse.

Theatre is always meant to speak to our current moment, and the warning of “18 Months After November” is meant for audiences now, if they will only listen, and choose a different path moving forward.

“18 Months After November” can be found for viewing here:

DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The chilling aftermath of an election brings truth and clarity.

On a personal note, Sarah and Jacob Juntunen were colleagues at Ohio University, and are friends.

Review: “Burning Bluebeard” (The Ruffians & Porchlight Music Theatre)

Jay Torrence, Anthony Courser, Pamela Chermansky, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters, and Crosby Sandoval/Photo by: Michael Courier.

When I was a teenager, I told people I wanted to be an artist because that meant I would never hurt anyone, never take anything from others not willingly offered, never harm strangers physically or emotionally. Years after earning my theatre degree and making a career as a playwright, I now know that art can impact and even hurt people in ways I never imagined as a young fan of the musicals my high school performed.

In the Chicago classic “Burning Bluebeard,” the actors retell and re-live the destruction of the 1903 Iroquois Theater. All they wanted to do, they tell their contemporary audience, is create moonlight. They wanted to bring magic to their early twentieth century audience just after Christmas. But it was their lighting scheme that set the curtains and the building alight. And it was an actor who advised audience members — mostly women and children — to stay in their seats and remain calm, rather than find a safe exit. It was an actor who forced open the backstage door that created a backdraft and consumed the audience.

What is the value of art in a moment of destruction? The Ruffians production, last year produced by Porchlight Music Theatre, asks this annually around late December, just as the original 1903 actors of “Mr. Bluebeard” presented their Christmas pantomime for an eager audience of families. This year, “Burning Bluebeard” is presented as an archival performance from the 2019 edition of the play, and it is an enlightening experience to watch this play, even from afar, in 2020. 

The theaters are closed, stage manager Robert Murray (“Burning Bluebeard” playwright Jay Torrence) informs us after the lights rise. This comes by order of the mayor, because theaters across Chicago are deemed unsafe for groups to gather in. Already, goosebumps dotted my skin, as I recognized a parallel to our pandemic lives. But the show must go on, his fellow company members insist: Fancy Clown (Pamela Chermansky), a lover of melodrama and drawn-out emotional moments; Henry Gilfoil (Anthony Courser), who insists that his Mr. Bluebeard has psychology, and cannot just be a villain; Eddie Foy (Ryan Walters), a comedian who brought his young son to the day’s performance; and Nellie Reed (Leah Urzendowski), the aerialist ballerina, who drops crimson petals on the upper balcony during a regular, uninterrupted performance. They are aided in their recreation of events by the Faerie Queen (Crosby Sandoval), and they hope this time around, they will create moonlight and keep the audience safe.

As developed by the original company years ago, and directed by Halena Kays, this group of actors embraces the presentational aspects of early twentieth century performance by clowning with each other and the audience. Each character is introduced in bold strokes, one lighting a lighter to the fright of others; another spurting blood and strangling themselves to death in dark humor that comforts the viewer. By the time events turn serious, the audience is as off-kilter as the original audience might have been; when matters become life and death, not magic and the mundane, there is nothing anyone can do to change them.

Associate sound designer Robert Hornbostel supports these tonal shifts with well-timed shifts into Amy Winehouse, and even utilizing an eerie take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Lighting designer Maggie Fullilove-Nugent creates lanterns and a hanging bunch of Edison light bulbs that become menacing rather than magical by play’s end. And the choreography by Leah Urzendowski and Ariel Etana Trifuno turns from playful dance numbers to the creation of a burning audience of flailing arms and stomping feet.

By the end of “Burning Bluebeard,” you learn what made this theatrical event unforgettable. It wasn’t moonlight. It was the safety violations the actors could not anticipate, and though they feel responsible for what happened to their audience, they deserve to have their stories remembered, as they were not the ones who locked doors and gates; they were not the ones who built the building or oversold the show and crowded the aisles. In fact, their experience led to the creation of rules we still follow, to ensure safety in all theatre spaces. And the horror they witnessed also led to the creation of the crash bar on emergency doors in public places. They wanted to create something magical, but they became the harbingers of something much more important. Their tragedy is that they could not possibly save everyone, something that is true of artists in 2020, too. But like our current moment, they can still reach out with the resources they have, and tell stories that matter.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A moment in theatre history brought to life shows us now.

Show: “Burning Bluebeard”

Company: The Ruffians & Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Ruth E. Page Center for the Arts (1016 N Dearborn St)