Robo-femme

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For those of us who closely follow the meandering trails, detours, and full-stops of the vibrant wonder that is Chicago storefront theater, there was no production more highly-anticipated this season than Sideshow Theatre Company’s Heddatron, the Chicago premiere (part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep series) of Elizabeth Meriwether’s wacky, genius melding of Ibsen and robots that she wrote for the hot New York experimental theater company, Les Freres Corbusier in 2006.  The plotline is a doozy (and generated gasps of wonder when I mentioned it on my Facebook status):  a depressed Ypsilanti, Michigan housewife is kidnapped by a band of robots and taken to the Ecuadorian jungle where she is forced to perform with them in Hedda Gabler, while Henrik Ibsen skulks through the vines and interrupts the performance every chance he gets. Then scenes set in Ibsen’s fractious household, including an appearance by his rival August Strindberg, are intercut with the Michigan and Ecuadorian action.  And last weekend, during the play’s rousing middle section, when Ibsen, the robots, Ibsen’s wife in lingerie, a mechanized TV set, and a guy in an ammo belt, among others, sang and danced to Bonnie Tyler’s 80s-signpost-now-karaoke-classic, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, I sat gape-mouthed at the inventiveness and originality of it all.  I liked a lot of Heddatron, and especially admire Sideshow’s success in producing on the Chicago storefront theater budget a technically impressive production that can rival the best of New York off-Broadway, but I wished there was a little more heart and emotion in Meriwether’s smart, whimsical script.

Ibsen’s heroine and Meriwether’s Michigan housewife Jane are similar in that they are both struggling to cope with the social expectations laid on their backs as women, mothers, and wives.  Meriwether makes a point that, despite all the inroads of feminism and gender equality in the 20th century, there are still striking similarities between Hedda’s 19th century Norwegian middle-class milieu and Jane’s 21st century suburban America one.  Check – got that.  But where Ibsen had Hedda pull the trigger on that gun to find herself, Meriwether has Jane find fulfillment in a robot theatrical production in the depths of the Amazon forest.  It’s brilliant and hilarious (plus the fact that using robots in a production of Hedda Gabler is a literary-chic dig at the play’s reputation as the forerunner of Naturalism in the theater). There is no denying that Meriwether’s play is smart, sophisticated, and very funny, and assumes a similar level of intelligence in its audience.  However, sometimes it is a little too smart and smug.   Jane’s daughter Nugget annotates the action at the Ibsen household with at times a whiff of self-aware condescension.  I think Meriwether spends too much time on Ibsen (and injects a bunch of MFA-type arcana like his propensity to play with dolls) and not as much time on Jane and her emotions and struggles as I would have liked her to.  Then there’s the whole use of video (in interviews with a robot expert, and in a documentary of Jane’s family’s response to the kidnapping) which gives the play high marks in the “coolness” and “hipness” rating scales, but I don’t think really brings much more emotional depth and texture to the text.

Then the robots arrive.  And “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is performed with exhilarating gusto by both person-cast and mechanized-cast (man, I was half-expecting Bonnie Tyler and her punk-collar to show up, and she wouldn’t look out of place in all that delightful mayhem).  And the awe-inspiring jungle set marvelously dreamed up by scenic designer Lisi Stoessel is revealed.  And you end up overlooking your nitpicks and reservations on the text, because this is theater that is inventive, fully-realized, and highly enjoyable.  You kick-back and delight in the good-natured, no-holds-barred game of the excellent ensemble cast and director Jonathan L. Green.  You admire the technology on a shoestring that Green and robot designer David Hyman impressively conjures up.  And when the robots and Jane, played with well-calibrated nuance by Nina O’Keefe, start performing Hedda Gabler, you allow yourself to be transported to a new world of wonders and amazement, and that, in my book, is what makes good theater.  

That “Total Eclipse of the Heart” production number from another galaxy is worth the twenty bucks admission alone!  Heddatron is at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. until April 24.  Get your tickets now!

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