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reverbOne of the things I love so much about Chicago storefront theater is the astounding intimacy that the audience has with the actors. A lot of it has to do with the performing spaces – many of the theaters are in small black boxes that put the actors almost literally in the face (and laps and arms) of the audience.  But some of it has to do as well with the brazen resourcefulness and creativity of the best directors and actors in this city, and their impressive ability to draw the audience in deep into the world of the play.  There’s a heady immediacy, and an intoxicating, if sometimes unsettling, pseudo-voyeurism in Chicago storefront theatergoing that is rarely experienced anywhere else, except maybe in the outer reaches of off-off Broadway.  On Saturday, in the close quarters of Redtwist Theater in Edgewater, I could smell the whiff of lead actor Peter Oyloe’s chewing gum in the opening scene of Leslye Headland’s Reverb, now receiving a bombastic Chicago premiere.  That’s how close I was to him (and by the way, Oyloe is one actor whose chewing gum whiffs I would gladly envelop myself with, ahem).  And when he slapped his co-star Mary Williamson hard at the end of that scene, I flinched and recoiled, as if he slapped me as well.  Where else could I have felt such a visceral instance of the blurring between spectator and performer?

Redtwist’ s production of Reverb, directed with muscular firmness by Jonathan Berry, gives this blisteringly calloused work the in-your-face, stomach-punching staging it needs. I can’t imagine seeing this work in a larger theater with a proscenium – its story of the brutalizing, co-dependent relationship between a tortured musician, Dorian, played by Oyloe and his equally-wounded but steadfast girlfriend and muse, June, played by Williamson, will lose some of its power if there is the conventional audience distance.  The underlying claustrophobia in the relationship is clearly drawn out by the tightness of Berry’s staging, and it’s the staging and the performances that make this Reverb work effectively, in my opinion.  Because although I think Headland is a talented writer, and has an impressive ability to write tense, powerful scenes, her script has some glaring imperfections.  Some parts are underdeveloped – we get tantalizing but incomplete views into Dorian’s abused childhood past which drives his current self-destructive behavior, and get an even incomplete glimpse of June’s similar one only in the last third of the show.  Their motivations feel murky throughout the show – at the beginning you think these two are into domination and sexual violence as a fetish, but as you hear about their pasts, it becomes apparent that they’re acting out responses to those pasts. The characters of Dorian’s friends (heroically played by Nick Vidal and Chris Chmelik despite superficial characterizations) also seem extraneous. On the other hand, Headland also packs Dorian’s character with a jukebox catalog of doomed musician genius clichés (the daddy issues, the erratic ADD, the self-involvement) that you wonder why the heck is June staying with this jerk again?

But Oyloe, one of the city’s best young actors, gives Dorian layers of relatability that help transcend the tortured musician portrayal. When he hurts himself while getting into fights with people he loves like June or his religious sister Lydia (very finely played by Brittany Burch), you get the palpable sense of cry for help versus dangerous, heedless self-immolation.  But this, for me, is Williamson’s show. Her June is one of the most thoughtfully constructed  performances this theater season – she is tough, grounded, sexual, nurturing, although dealing with her own demons, she’s trying to vanquish Dorian’s own.  Williamson is terrific, and it’s another indelible characterization after her turns in last year’s Hit the Wall as a protective sister and this year’s A Permanent Image as an embittered lesbian daughter, performances I’ve been very enthralled with.  There is also a wonderful firecracker of a supporting performance from Ashley Neal as Ivy, a bitchy, self-important music blogger who wants to promote Dorian’s music – in her couple of scenes Headland writes some of the most scathing, fully-realized lines about the perils of fame and selling out in our celebrity-obsessed pop culture.  How I wished she was as clear-eyed in the rest of her playwriting.

Reverb is at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., until June 23.

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