Fearless

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new colony rewilding geniusA couple of weeks ago I was at a party with my dear friend Jonathan (who has traipsed through these blog pages before) and after several gushy mentions of shows currently playing, he (cattily?) remarked “you’re clearly Chicago theater’s biggest supporter”.   Well, flattered though I was, I wouldn’t really call myself #1 superfan- that title unequivocally belongs, and rightly so, to this guy. But even after 15 years of Chicago theatergoing, I’m often impressed and dumbstruck at the fearlessness and audacity of our energetic storefront theaters, their unwavering spirit of collaboration, their can-do, no-obstacles attitude to putting together ambitious, enthralling theatrical evenings in spaces no bigger than laundry rooms (and in one instance the theater was actually one) with budgets equivalent to the price of a pair of Christian Louboutins.  As an audience member I’ve always felt privileged to share that passion. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen several risk-taking storefront endeavors; not all of them succeed, but man, their aspirations are thrilling! Here are some of my thoughts on them.

reWILDing Genius (The New Colony) – I’ve written about The New Colony a lot on this blog.  It’s a complex, always fascinating storefront theater company specializing in devised original works– at one time it’s producing heart-wrenching, perfectly-realized plays like Calls to Blood, at another time, it’s coming up with warmed-over Hedwig wanna-bees like The Rise of the Numberless. Sometimes infuriating, always mesmerizingly bold, I thought The New Colony was a great fit with Steppenwolf Theater’s Garage Rep, the annual showcase of the city’s ascendant theater groups.  reWILDing Genius, about a group of Chicago twentysomethings who couple their unrelenting idealism and disaffection with big business and big government with their savvy technological skills to embark on a dramatic plan for social change, has an urgency and currency that you won’t find in any other work currently onstage in the city. Writers Andrew Hobgood (who also directed with a slow-burning confident hand) and Megan Johns has come up with a canny, intricate script that feels so compellingly relevant:  the characters band together to cyber-steal highly proprietary drug formula from pharmaceutical companies to publish them so people can create their own low cost drugs instead. Hobgood and Johns paint their characters’ morally ambiguous actions in the broad strokes that recall Edward Snowden’s and Julian Assange’s, and raise the age-old overarching questions: is it permissible to do harm to some in order to create good for others? Does the end justify the means?  And when does idealism blend into zealotry?

Act Two when the group of seven execute their plan and face its consequences is riveting, with a terrific speech,  blisteringly delivered by a fine Caitlin Chuckta playing the most fervent member of the group, that gets to the crux of this “new morality”: institutions and infrastructure wrong, individual determination and privacy right. But Hobgood’s and Johns’ script still needs some work:  Act One feels very expositional, with the characters “narrating” the reasons that justify the group’s actions instead of delivering character-specific motivations; it’s never really clear why this particular group came together except that six of them are living together in a loose roommate situation (Chuckta’s character says they were all selected for a specific reason, but these reasons remained fuzzy throughout the play); other intriguing themes such as the parallelism with another character’s parents’ similar Doomsday fanaticism feel underdeveloped.  Actually, overall the characters feel underdeveloped, but the sexy, earnest cast of young actors makes them believable if not fully comprehensible. . .Or maybe I’m just an old fuddy duddy who can’t understand why these twentysomethings would do something so morally wrong (at least from my generation’s point of view) for what they think is a greater good.  ReWilding Genius is at the Steppenwolf Garage Theater, 1624 N. Halsted until April 20. Check Steppenwolf.org for tickets.

The Killing of Michael X (Jackalope Theatre Company)-  Speaking of ambition with a blazing, blinding capital “A”, Jackalope Theatre Company has put on the most fascinating, if not fully successful, storefront show this season. In a black box space in the heart of the cavernous Broadway Armory in Edgewater (if you’re not careful, you’ll end up in a locker room like I did, which on other nights would not have been too bad, ahem), Jackalope has premiered Cory Hinkle’s story of a teenage girl out to kill the CEO of a big pharma corporation whom she blames for the death of her prescription-drug addicted older brother in an exciting staging that blends live performance and video, astutely making the most of a budget that’s probably less than the cost of dining at the kitchen table at Next restaurant.  Although there are some puzzling choices (why would the radio show be performed live as a shadow play but the radio reporter calling into it from the field is on film?), director Kaiser Ahmed and videographer Alex Hand has some of the biggest bad-ass cojones (or cojoneses?) in this theatrical town, seamlessly, engagingly, thoughtfully integrating the filmed scenes into the show, and in the process giving the actors a workout equivalent to ten zumba classes as they keep moving the set around to accommodate a gigantic projection screen.  The film component is an innovative if not totally essential element here – the main character Celia is an art film junkie who references everything from Godard to 50s Hollywood noir films.

Hinkle’s script though needs a lot of work:  there’s a lot of not fully-thought out stage business (a buried human femur in the girl’s backyard, a police detective with incestuous feelings for his dead teenage daughter) which don’t feel fully part of the narrative; and there’s a baffling co-mingling of styles, with the scenes involving Celia’s family and the detective somewhat more stylized than the naturalistic scenes between Celia and her accomplice/lover (shades of Bonnie and Clyde, anyone?) Randy played by Andrew Goetten, sensational in last year’s 9 Circles, with his usual thoughtful intensity. Celia is played by Joanne Dubach, who broke my heart as a wondrous Laura in Mary-Arrchie’s The Glass Menagerie a couple of years back, but both she and Ahmed have perplexingly decided to create a performance that for most of the running time come off like a cross between a demented cheerleader and an atomic bomb blast. It’s quite an unexpectedly hysterical turn, so in the final scene, which Dubach admittedly plays beautifully, all the grief, insecurity, and loneliness in it seem to be rushed and unearned. I am floored by the ambition and bravado though of this show, and because of these Jackalope Theatre has joined the top of my list of theater companies to watch in Chicago. The Killing of Michael X is at the Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway, until April 13.

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