Hipster Theater

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In early 2009, I said that Frat, the second production of the new theater company The New Colony, was “a terrific example of youthful, raw, blistering, ferocious, hungrily-acted and directed Chicago storefront theater”.  Later that year, I said of their Calls to Blood that it was “…gut-punching, heart-breaking, tears-inducing, and throat-catching, quite simply one of my more memorable nights at any theater recently.”  Since 2009, The New Colony has won Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theater Award, brought Calls to Blood (re-titled Hearts Full of Blood) to the New York Fringe Festival, and had a bona-fide water-cooler summer hit last year with 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche.  There is no doubt that The New Colony is a vital, pivotal part of the city’s ever-thriving storefront theater scene.  And as an audience member who has followed the theater company since its inception, it has been a thrilling journey.  So I’m really confused and disappointed that their latest production, the original rock-musical Rise of the Numberless, in collaboration with another stalwart of the storefront scene, Bailiwick Chicago, is possibly one of the most ill-advised shows I’ve seen in the past twelve months. Just like the hipsters that throng the Bucktown cross-streets of the Flat Iron Arts Building where it is being performed, Rise of the Numberless is calculatedly-styled, with every pulsating song, fake-angry choreography, and meticulously-set-designed grime strategically placed to evoke a hip-cool-glam-cutting-edge-(insert other buzz words here)-production.  And just like these Bucktown/Wicker Park hipsters (and many of them will probably be flocking to the show because it sounds and looks, oh, so cool), the production feels hollow and superficial, with none of the “blistering” and “heart-breaking” qualities that I found with the theater’s early shows which I loved.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against hipster theater.  Hey, more power to shows that can bring in audiences that typically may not be going to the theater.  I went to see the first iterations (with Michael Cerveris and GCB star Miriam Shor) of the mother of hipster rock musicals, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in New York in the late-1990s.  But Hedwig, for me, had real heart and emotion and characters to root for, and more importantly a coherent narrative, amidst all the glam rock posturing and eardrum-blasting music-playing. Unfortunately I didn’t find any of those in Rise of the Numberless, well, except for the eardrum-blasting. It’s a musical-within-a-musical in which a group of The Numberless, people driven to live underground because of the US’ one-child-only policy, dramatize their plight within the confines of some subterranean lair while the government is in hot pursuit to shut the show down and arrest them and their audience.  This whole one-child policy is the brainchild of a demagogue US Senator who gets elected President after some cataclysmic event strikes America.  I’m not really sure what that event is, and why having a one-child policy should win someone the Presidency over, say, trying to rebuild the financial markets or urban re-development.  What’s the appeal of this policy to the voting public?  It’s never made clear. And that’s one of my complaints about the script, by Patriac Coakley, Andrew Hobgood, and Evan Linder – it starts on big themes (rise of authoritarianism, extreme conservatism), and never fully develops them because the show just hurtles on to the next hip-glam number. Well, of course, it turns out that the President has a second son, and against the First Lady’s wishes, he is abandoned and, expectedly, becomes part of The Numberless.  Then there’s the whole business of the First Lady and the First Son (Joshua) all getting reconciled with the banished Son (Jacob) underground through various situations, but again, there is no emotional payoff to the scenes:  the relationships are not fully developed, the characters’ motivations are hazy (how did the First Lady turn into a boozehound underground?), and there is this rush through the book scenes to get to the next throbbing and shrieking musical number (music by Chris Gingrich and Julie B. Nichols, lyrics by Gingrich and Hobgood). It’s not my kind of music, admittedly, but to be frank, the songs are not memorable at all.

Unmemorable songs in a musical can still make an impact on the audience though (hello, Nine) through exceptional staging and dynamic performances.  Hobgood is a good director, and I’ve admired his previous work but the musical numbers in Rise of the Numberless come off contrived, as if they are faithfully adhering to step-by-step instructions from the “How to Put on a Glam Rock Musical” handbook.  There’s a lot of jumping and running and raising fists and collapsing on the floor, but these don’t adequately communicate much of the anger, or violence, or menace, or danger that the show’s book implies.  You may not need these qualities in musical numbers when you’re putting on a rock concert at the Empty Bottle or The Hideout, but if these numbers are in a theatrical piece that aims to engage an audience into a world they can suspend disbelief in then they’re kinda important.  And maybe part of the problem is that Hobgood’s cast, comprised of many talented musical theater actors who have dazzled in many, many shows I’ve seen them at in the city, doesn’t come off as the revolutionaries with borderline-deranged chutzpah that The Numberless are supposed to be – despite the intricate costuming and make-up, the cast comes off for the most part inherently clean-cut, good-natured, luminously-talented actors who will feel more at home in Smash then, say, Velvet Goldmine.  There are exceptions:  Ryan Lanning, by sheer force of boundless talent and charisma, powers through his numbers, and Michael Harnichar delivers a gritty, on-the-edge riveting performance of one of the later songs (is it “Idiot Girl”?) in the textured manner I expected the rest of the show’s performances to have.

Hobgood, The New Colony, and Bailiwick Chicago end The Rise of the Numberless in one of the most brazen stagings I’ve seen recently. But isn’t there something wrong with the picture if the ending of the show is the most memorable part for me as an audience member?

Rise of the Numberless is at Collaboraction Studio 300, Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee, until May 26.

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