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I gotta admit I always have a certain level of apprehension whenever I go to see a Hypocrites show. Mind you, it’s not a “walking alone down a dark alley scared of being jumped by an axe murderer” kind of anxiety, but more like “first date from Match.com and is he going to be as charming and smart as his online picture is hot” type of uncertainty.  Because, you never really know what you are going to get with The Hypocrites, truly the most unpredictable, irreverent, wildly creative, wickedly smart theater company in Chicago, responsible for many unsurpassable Chicago theatrical highs over the past couple of years, but also, frankly, some resounding lows. So I really wasn’t sure what to think when at the beginning of what I thought was their latest show, a new adaptation by Steve Moulds of Luigi Pirandello’s Absurdist classic 6 Characters in Search of an Author, the actors started rehearsing Pirates of Penzance, their recently-shuttered remount of an idiosyncratic take on the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. I’m like, Huh?  Of course, when the titular six characters finally show up, looking like haunted escapees from an Edward Gorey book crossed with Halloween night at the Kardashians,  I finally get where director Halena Kays, in her first production as new Artistic Director succeeding Sean Graney (the embodiment of The Hypocrites for more than a decade) is going  in this production.  6 Characters is a celebration of the artistic passing of the baton, and a reassurance to its zealous followers (like me) that the qualities that unmistakably and brilliantly brand and differentiate a Hypocrites show will continue to endure. 

Kays stages 6 Characters brilliantly, seamlessly blending the world of the outer-frame play (the actors, director and production manager trying to rehearse Pirates) and Pirandello’s play (the six characters that interrupt the rehearsal to convince the company to stage their unfinished drama).  She does this, for one, by giving the outer-frame play and its characters lots of warmth and big-heartedness (ably aided by the generous effervescence of Brennan Bruhl as the befuddled director and the sexy-comic skills of Laura McKenzie as one of the actors) while tamping down on the otherworldly, Gothic nature of the Pirandello play and its characters (company member Samantha Gleisten as the grieving mother is a standout). She stages the scenes all around the Chopin basement theater on elevated platforms and requires the audience to swivel in their chairs to view the scenes, amplifying the sense of exciting dislocation that Pirandello’s meta-theatrical writing creates.  She ably builds the tension that leads to the climactic tragic moments of the Pirandello play through smart, edited use of Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s muscular lighting design (ably switching between bright rehearsal-room lighting and expressionistic touches).  And all throughout, Kay and Moulds clearly and powerfully demonstrate Pirandello’s points around the ambivalence and challenges of creative dramatic writing.  It is the type of Hypocrites show that we have all come to love and eagerly look forward to during Graney’s tenure.

The show isn’t perfect. As it is with some other Hypocrites’ shows, there’s a sense of theater insider-ness (references to other Chicago theater companies peppered throughout the outer-frame play, for example), which may be perplexing to more casual theatergoers. I wish some of the 6 characters are more engaging and better integrated with the meta-theatricality (Ted Evans as the Son appropriately smolders, but his character’s direct impact on the show is questionable).  But this is impeccable, high-quality theater which announces the beginning of Kay’s tenure with one of the most irreplaceable and essential Chicago theater companies with a resounding bang.

PS: Brennan Bruhl should be in more shows! The last time I saw him was in The Hypocrites’ K. back in late 2010 (and I raved about his “…excitingly unexpected portrayal of Joseph K, smart, spirited, unimpressionable…”). Where has he been since then? His effortless radiance and impressive ability to switch between drama and comedy should make him one of this city’s most sought-after leading men. Just saying.

6 Characters in Search of an Author will continue to be Lost in Wicker Park at The Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St., until March 11.

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