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This week, we’ve been bombarded by the horrifying images of the London riots but in the summer of 2005 we were also confronted by a different set of terrifying images from that city – the aftermath of suicide bombings by four young British men in the London public transportation system (underground subway and bus) that killed 52 people and injured more than 700.  The 2005 London bombing is the backdrop for Simon Stephen’s heart-stopping, gut-punching play Pornography, now in a spectacular Chicago premiere at Steep Theatre Company.  If all you’ve been doing this summer so far is getting sunburned and sweaty-drunk in the city’s never-ending, and quite frankly, tedious, street festival circuit, then I suggest you hightail it immediately to Berwyn and Broadway, where Steep is proving that the concept of the “dog days of summer” doesn’t apply to Chicago’s ingenious theater scene.

I’m currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant novel Freedom (a topic suitable for another blog post) and in it he says “Words made everything less safe, words had no limits, words made their own world.”  I’m struck how apt this sentence is to what Stephen achieves in Pornography.  The play is an intermissionless series of monologues (and two duologues) of random Londoners, as well as one of the suicide bombers, of their lives in the days leading up to July 7, 2005, when the bombings took place.  It is quite the rogue’s gallery of lonely, tragically-flawed characters, and we’re not even talking about the suicide bomber himself, who comes off blindly, outrageously angry, but also human and yearning.  The episodes involve an executive assistant depressed by her home life who is driven to commit corporate sabotage at her company; a brother and sister who finally succumb to the simmering sexual tension between them; a teenage boy bullied in school and in love with his teacher who performs an act of violence; a newly-divorced professor who makes a sexual advance on his former male student; a grandmother addicted to online porn who tries to overcome her desolation by begging for a piece of grilled chicken from a stranger’s house.  Stephen’s monologues are stirring, thought-provoking, breathless, vivid, sharp-elbowed.  His words paint painful, terrifying episodes of loneliness, of desperation, of moral ambivalence, of racism, so much so that they come off as random acts of horror in domestic lives that presage the larger, unspeakable horror in the public realm of the events of July 7.  I think Stephen is telling us that amidst large-scale horror such as this act of terrorism can be these tiny, individualistic horrors of daily life, which can be, to the people who live them, as devastating.  With his words in Pornography, Stephen makes our worlds, our own selves less safe, because these ordinary people we are watching with extraordinarily cruel lives can be potentially us.

It is a terrific play, but since it is comprised mainly of separate episodes of one or two actors speaking, with no narrative or protagonists and antagonists, I can imagine Pornography to be trying, and potentially tiresome, to the ADD-afflicted theatergoer.  I’d hope though that the outstanding cast Steep assembled to give life to Stephen’s dangerous words, all of them giving performances full of thoughtful layers, impressive verve, and heartfelt emotion, will serve as the way into the difficult text for audiences looking for a more traditional theatergoing experience.  The Pornography ensemble is one of the best I’ve seen so far this year (on the par with Steep’s extraordinary production of Festen), but special mention must go to the exceptional Kendra Thulin who plays the executive assistant ignored by her husband, stressed out by her boss, and disgusted with her life with slow-simmering anger and vindictiveness, and to Michael Salinas, ambiguously seductive and manipulative at the same time as the former student meeting up with his university professor (Salinas is so terrific in this play, all coyness and subtleties, that you forget he played the brutish younger brother in Festen, a 160 degree turn from this performance.  I’m very impressed).  Robin Witt’s direction is strong, straightforward,  and unemotional while video designer Mike Tutaj complements the text with a collage of confrontational, disturbingly juxtaposed images (extracted from porn, violence, old TV shows, documentaries, etc.). Pornography will keep you unsettled long after you leave the theater.

Pornography is running at Steep Theatre Company, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave., until September 3.

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