Garage Band

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There’s a whole lot of shaking going on at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater with three of Chicago’s up-and-coming theater companies being given Steppenwolf’s formidable resources to stage their plays in rotating repertory.  It’s a very generous, very admirable move from one of the stalwart arts organizations in the city, and overall I can recommend all three, to varying degrees of enthusiasm.  I think this is a terrific shot in the arm for Chicago’s storefront theater scene and all three theater companies stepped up to plate.  Here’s what I think:

The Twins Would Like to SayDog & Pony Theater, one of the young storefront theater companies I admire a lot, continues to wow with this true story, adapted by Seth Bockley and Devon de Mayo, of immigrant twins in 1970s Wales who created their own set-apart world, with their own language and physical movement, and who wrote bizarre, eccentric, often violent stories about Malibu teenagers.  Staged promenade-style, this is the most innovative production in Garage Rep, with scenes playing out in various parts of the theater simultaneously (which is pretty ballsy, but also makes for somewhat choppy story-telling, since you miss the scenes that you’re not following), the use of shadow puppets, and a fabulous, Tony Manero-style group disco scene near the end of the show.  It’s a unique theater experience, a little different from the other recent promenade shows I’ve been to (but more similar I heard to Dog & Pony’s earlier critical hit As Told By the Vivian Girls, which I unfortunately didn’t see), and at times too unique, with a little too much stimuli hitting you between the eyes.  Speaking of eyes, Grant Sabin’s exceptional set design, with moveable panels that give way to scene upon scene, is pretty eye-catching.

 The very short 65 minute running time probably accounts for the fact that there seems to be a lack of exposition in terms of why these twin girls ended up creating a world of their own that shut out even their parents.  Ok, they were black immigrants in what could only be imagined as an unwelcoming and overwhelmingly white Welsh community in the 1970s, but is the difficulty of assimilation enough to make one not speak?  I’m an immigrant myself, and I know a lot of immigrants (including my extended family who came to the US in the same time period as the girls and their family, the early to mid 1970s) but I don’t know any that had Harpo Marx tendencies.  The performances of Paige Collins and Ashleigh LaThrop, though, as the twins are perfectly calibrated – creepy and infuriatingly inscrutable at times, heartbreakingly poignant at others. 

Adore – Although I was more emotionally engaged by The Twins Would Like to Say, I strongly believe that Adore is the type of production that a cutting-edge, innovative, offbeat theatrical series such as Garage Rep should showcase.  Its subject matter is pretty harrowing and quite fascinating, in a despicable sort of way (and what’s disturbing is that it’s based on a true crime story that happened in Germany in the early ‘noughts), the love story (if you could call it that) between two men who fit each other’s needs perfectly – a self-professed cannibal and the guy whose ultimate fantasy is to be eaten, who meet each other online. Written and directed by the exceptional actor Stephen Louis Grush for the theater company XIII Pocket in which he serves as Artistic Director, Adore is pretty intense going for most of it’s 70 minute running time, with monologues delivered in perfectly normal, non-creepy, conversational tones by the compelling pair of Eric Leonard (as Armin, the eater) and Paige Smith (as Bernd, the eatee).  I really like the way Grush directs these actors and stages these scenes, because the important point is made that these guys, despite how their actions are particularly repulsive to the rest of civilized society, believed how integral, and yes, how normal, these actions, desires, fantasies, are to the lives they lead.

I’m also pretty impressed by the use of video, shot by Mike Kwielford, with other characters in the play interacting with Armin and Bernd cinematically, instead of in live performance, again, making the point that their reality is not the real, normal, conventional world as we know it.   I’m perplexed by the negative reviews that the Trib, TimeOut, and the Reader gave this production, since with Adore, I think Grush sets XIII Pocket very much apart from much of Chicago storefront theater right now, where safe (Chekhov and Miller re-treads, work that panders to twentysomething Facebookers) seemingly reigns supreme.  So I’m going out there and giving a hearty, enthusiastic, two-thumbs up recommendation:  see Adore, right now, because it’s a great example of what the rest of storefront theater, in content and in form, should be doing.

Punkplay – Geez, the 1980s (or the time Francis discovered the beauty of shaving in the morning, Spandau Ballet, and The Goonies) seems to be back in full-force.  First, the elaborate John Hughes tribute at the Oscars, and now this, Gregory Moss’s new play (which had a well-received premiere in New York last year) about discovering one’s self through punk rock, as performed on roller-skates.  Despite the roller-skates, and a hilarious, over-the-top, seduction fantasia involving Ronald Reagan in a bikini, this Pavement Group production, directed by Artistic Director David Perez, is probably the most conventional production in Garage Rep.  This can be good and well…not-so-good.  It’s good because Punkplay, with its good-naturedness and optimistic sensibility, relieves some of the intensity of watching promenading mute twin girls and their out-of-this world fantasies, and star-crossed cannibalism encased by video technology.  It’s not-so-good, because I’m not sure this show really holds up against the risk-taking, imagination, and gut-punch of the other two.  And maybe I’m wrong, but the notion of a Garage Rep connotes a more brazen, experimental endeavor, something I’m not sure Punkplay really fits into.

Mickey (a touching, extremely watchable Matt Farrabee) and Duck (a good, but needing-to-tone-it-down-a-notch Alexander Lane) are two high-school misfits who bond together over their view of punk, and punk rock, as the epitome of rebelliousness and rule-breaking.  Moss writes a lot of memorable scenes with genuine feeling – the Reagan seduction scene and the boys’ discovery of porn (bestiality, in fact) are hilarious; the boys fight scene that ends in a startled kiss is movingly eloquent in communicating what they truly feel about one another without the use of explicit exposition.  But this type of coming of age story has been told before (exhibit A:  John Hughes movies), in different ways, yes, but it’s still not that fresh or creative, unlike the other two shows it is in Garage repertory with.  Perez stages the scenes crisply and cinematically, and Grant Sabin again demonstrates he is the stage designer to watch in this city, with his evocative, moveable design of Mickey’s bedroom, but I probably expected more from Punkplay and it’s inclusion in this particular theatrical showcase.

The Twins Would Like to Say, Adore, and Punkplay are playing in rotating repertory at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St. until April 25.  Please check www.steppenwolf.org for the specific schedules of each of the plays. You can purchase a pass to see all three, which gives you $5 off each individual ticket.

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