On the Ascent

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calls-to-blood.jpgI’m always surprised when I’m talking to people at dinner or cocktail parties who proclaim that they’re avid Chicago theatergoers and most of the plays they’ve seen in the past couple of years were at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, or Lookingglass (but I politely excuse myself and seek out another vodka tonic when they say Broadway in Chicago, shudder!).  As you all know I have been a fan of many, many productions in these theaters (and in the spirit of repetitive full disclosure, I am a member of Steppenwolf’s young professionals board), so I think they’re absolutely indispensable to the city’s vibrant cultural life.  However, I want to vigorously shake these self-styled culturatis’ awake, because by limiting their theatergoing to the large, established theaters, they’re undeniably missing much of what makes Chicago such an indisputably great town for theater.  One of the pleasures of writing this blog is continuously rediscovering the ever-fluid, ever-dynamic storefront theater scene, and over the past year, I’ve been eagerly watching the ascendance of two young, energetic, impassioned theater companies:  I was bowled over by the Right Brain Project (RBP)’s imaginative and meticulous And They Put Handcuffs On The Flowers earlier this year (but disappointed by their messy Put My Finger In Your Mouth this summer) and I was intrigued by the New Colony‘s audacious but somewhat flawed Frat during the spring.  So there was absolutely no second-guessing or hemming and hawing in deciding to go and see these two theater companies’ season openers:  RBP’s and author Brad Lawrence’s retelling of the Frankenstein story, The Modern Prometheus, and the New Colony’s contemporary relationship drama with a twist, written by co-founder James Asmus, Calls to Blood.   And I’m very pleased to report there was no disappointment this time around:  both RBP and the New Colony, with these productions, confirm without a doubt, that they’re doing some of the most exciting, most courageous, most distinctive theater in the city.  Even greater things should be ahead for both; and in cocktail and dinner parties two years hence, I’m pretty sure the same self-styled culturatis will be talking about these theaters, and I can enthusiastically say I knew them when.

There were two Frankenstein productions in Chicago during the last week of October, the Hypocrites’ recently-shuttered version at MCA Stage and RBP’s, so let’s get it out of the way – The Modern Prometheus has both the clarity in vision and the emotional heart that the Hypocrites’ self-immolating one did not.  And I’m somewhat dismayed that there could potentially be more people who saw the Hypocrites version than who would see Modern Prometheus when it concludes it’s run on November 21, not just because of this play’s lower-profile, but also because of the size of RBP Rorschack, the tiny, black box performing space on the fourth floor of a warehouse loft by the Irving Park and Ravenswood Metra tracks where it’s being staged, versus the expansive MCA Stage. So this blog post is an energetic Internet shove for all my blog readers to hightail it out to RBP Rorschack as soon as possible, in the hopes that they will cram themselves into that space.

For there is a lot to enjoy in this re-envisioning of the Frankenstein tale:  Artistic Director Nathan Robbel (who also acts in the play as Victor Frankenstein) and co-director David Marcotte’s creative and impactful staging which uses a minimum of props, evocative musical scoring and sound design, and Robbel’s distinctive use of unusual, but effective, lighting elements (a yellow spotlight and candlelight among others), for one; interesting, thoughtful, well-fleshed out (no pun intended) performances from Colby Sellers as the Creature, Dennis Newport as the priest, and, especially, Erin Elizabeth Orr,  who gives a vibrant, space-filling portrayal of Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée, for another.  I also really like Lawrence’s transposing of the story to Bavaria, in the early 1870s right at the end of the Franco-Prussian war.  There’s a lot of socio-cultural context that gives new resonance to the characters and the plot (when Victor is able to “resurrect” the town mayor’s daughter, the townsfolk rush to his home to have him bring their dead sons and husbands back to life, for example, an interesting narrative point on how Frankenstein’s experiments in the creation of life may play out in times of war, an element not in Mary Shelley’s original story).  Although I think some of the pacing can be tightened up, some of the acting can be more riveting, and Lawrence’s characterization of Victor (and Robbel’s low-key portrayal) lacks the more hypnotic teetering-on-the-verge-of madness quality that many Frankenstein productions incorporate, I still think The Modern Prometheus is one rousing evening at the theater.

The New Colony’s Calls to Blood is stirring as well; more specifically it is gut-punching, heart-breaking, tears-inducing, and throat-catching, quite simply one of my more memorable nights at any theater recently.  It all starts off quite unassumingly – we catch the tail-end of a dinner party where a young, upwardly mobile married couple (Sarah Gitenstein, who is frankly, magnificent, and Gary Tiedemann) are unsuccessfully trying to set-up her outspoken, not-easily-impressed childhood friend (Mary Hollis Inboden) with his outspoken, loutish best friend (Evan Linder).  It’s a scene that could easily have been played out in any of my friends’ condos – the writing is so freshly realistic, the acting so lived-in.  As the first act progresses, I think, hey, the main dramatic conflict will be the inability of the couple to have a child and their single friends’ good-intentioned but unhelpful kibitzing and advising – a story that I have seen multiple times in the past already (exhibit A:  Rebecca Gilman’s undistinguished The Crowd You’re In With).  But I’ve already been captivated by the first scene, so I’m willing to hang with the story and the characters.  So of course I don’t expect to be hit by the emotional tsunami that closes Act One and which ultimately is the crux of the play.  I can’t give it away in this blog post because, people, you just have to see Calls to Blood, but I can certainly say it is a surprising, brazen reveal that will keep folks on tenterhooks through Act Two.

The acting is just spectacular.  Gitenstein anchors the play with a ferocious performance that, in parts, recalls the intensity and velocity of Mattie Hawkinson’s in this summer’s Blackbird, the single best performance I’ve seen in Chicago this year.  Gitenstein is so vulnerable and emotionally-exposed at the end of Act One and through most of Act Two that as an audience member you don’t know how to react:  you want to hug and console her but at the same time you want to keep your distance, because, man, this chick could snap any time and you’ll be down on the floor picking up the pieces. It’s such a powerful performance; I’m very much looking forward to seeing what she does next (and her work in this play should propel her to the top of the Chicago acting ranks).  Tiedemann as her husband is excellent as well, and emotionally devastating.

You’d think Inboden and Linder wouldn’t find anything new or insightful in the typical “sidekick/best friend” characters but both are funny and heartbreaking, and a terrific complement to Gitenstein and Tiedemann.  I think their performances soar in the scene that opens Act Two: in one of the freshest, most genuinely-written scenes currently onstage in Chicago, Inboden and Linder grapple with the revelation that has impacted their friends’ relationship.  It’s one of the most perfectly-acted scenes I’ve seen this fall season as both of them delicately, hypnotically navigate their emotional responses to what happened to their friends’ marriage, from disbelief to fierce loyalty to sympathy to grief. 

I love most of Asmus’ writing, especially in Act One, so real-life and authentic, which can be funny, infuriating, engaging, brutally honest, calibrated, just like my, and I’m sure, your, conversations with your loved ones.  And director Andrew Hobgood brilliantly lets the writing and the actors play out naturally without any obtrusive directorial élan or trickery so you seem to be immersed in these characters’ lives.  I am so impressed with Hobgood’s success in letting the actors speak in cadences and rhythms of real-life, daily conversations, with all the deliberate pauses, inarticulateness, and pointed wordplay- it lets the writing stand out beautifully. 

Calls to Blood is not flawless:  I think Act Two could have been longer, I think Asmus could have written more substantial discussions around the socio-political-cultural implications of the couple’s relationship, rather than the broad hints dropped here and there, and the set design could have been more well-thought out (ok, it’s storefront theater, but it’s at the Royal George, there must be more upscale looking props lying around there).    But it is a definite must-run-to-see, and I hope it fills the Royal George cabaret space to capacity every night (which by the way was the venue of that other contemporary Chicago play, you know, that one packing them in New York right now, A Steady Rain?), it certainly deserves as broad an audience as it can get.

With all the running to see plays that I’ve been exhorting my blog readers to do, I could be leading a Chicago marathon training group!  Well, kids, put on those track shoes once more and zip on over to RBP Rorschack, 4001 N. Ravenswood to see The Modern Prometheus, which is onstage till November 21.  Then dash on over to The Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted for Calls to Blood, which is there till November 28. 

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One Response to “On the Ascent”

  1. Hank Perritt Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. A good example of excellence in small theater is 1512 W. Studebaker Place, a production of Brain Surgeon Theater, at tiny Prop Thtr, which I saw tonight. The set was spectacular and the music engaging.

    The small company of actors made the story of desperation in hard times, expressed through divergent coping mechanisms, and punctuated by scraps of happiness, come alive and connect with something every audience member has experienced.

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