The Bold and The Beautiful

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With my work travel having calmed down a bit, I have been able to get back into my regular theater routine of the past few years I’ve been writing this blog.  As of today, I’ve seen 32 plays since the beginning of the year which is approximately around 20 weeks, a pretty good batting average of 1.6 shows a week.  I may be getting crankier in my old age, though, since I’ve liked or admired less than a dozen of the shows, and have loved even fewer.  However, the great pleasure of being such an avid participant in a lively and bountiful theater scene such as Chicago’s is that you will always be surprised by what you’ll find playing at your corner storefront theater.  On paper, Clay McLeod Chapman’s and Kyle Jarrow’s Hostage Song, a rock musical about two American hostages in an unnamed Middle East country awaiting their fate, which unfortunately can involve, uhmm, a beheading, now receiving its Chicago premiere from Signal Ensemble Theatre, is probably the most improbable piece of theater you can see.  Why do a musical about such a devastatingly dark, squirm-inducing, politically-combustible topic? Well, I can ask back, why not, especially if it’s this musical?  Signal Ensemble’s Hostage Song is stunning, one of the best shows I’ve seen so far this year: harrowing, gutsy, brazen, relevant, mind-imploding, yet also tragically, poignantly, beautifully human. In a city that’s seeing much-heralded revivals of Iceman Cometh, Angels in America, and Rent, and new work such as The March, it is a simply staged musical that reflects our fraught and complicated emotions with the world we currently live in that is the most affecting.

In Hostage Song, a female journalist, Jennifer, and a male employee of a Pentagon contractor, Jim, are bound and blindfolded in a cell waiting for what their captors will do to them next.  They pass away the time making jokes, role-playing, having imaginary conversations with the loved ones they left behind in the US.  What I admire most about Chapman’s book and Jarrow’s lyrics is that they are as forceful, uncompromising, and brutal as the dialogue in a play about similar topics, for example Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, most recently onstage at Steppenwolf (in fact, Jennifer’s monologue about her translator’s blood drying and caking on her face is as vivid and gutwrenching as Margulies’ depiction of the frontlines of the war). It is theater that astounds with its articulate expressiveness – the scene where Jim’s wife confesses that the video of her husband blindfolded waiting to be beheaded reminds her of the video of his childhood birthday parties is both shocking and sad, infuriating and courageous. Even if Hostage Song is a musical, it is a musical that doesn’t really sugarcoat and uplift in the way musical theater conventions often do (and name me one musical that includes decapitation in its lyrics).

But you never forget Hostage Song is a musical because Jarrow’s songs are powerful with memorable melodies.  Although I admired his songs in A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, I thought they were a little too precious.  His work in Hostage Song is different – full-blooded, emotional, angry and grieving, reminiscent of how people talk.  “I Was A Child Once”, about how parents can never fully prepare their children for how cruel the world can be, is resonant (and beautifully performed by Steve O’Connell’s Jim); the opening song “I Flew Across the Ocean” has a catchy tune yet at the same time concisely and expressively captures the hostages’ guilt-ridden feelings for their loved ones’ suffering.

Director Ronan Marra stages the show gracefully:  simple, no frills, minimum of props, spotlights. He lets the cast – Jennifer, Jim, and a chorus that doubles up as other characters in the play- and the band sing and play their hearts out.  And what musical performances these are:  Simone Roos as Jennifer and Steve O’Connell as Jim honestly, painfully portray the anguish and fear of captivity, yet at the same time effectively communicate the innate need to survive and connect with others even in the most trying of conditions.  And they do this even while they’re bound and blindfolded for the play’s entire 90 minutes! Brigitte Ditmars, Dave Skvarla, and especially Joseph Stearns, as the chorus, sing formidably and passionately.

I have some minor quibbles with the production: I’m not sure why Jennifer and Jim sing some of the songs amplified and some of the songs unamplified; the acoustics in Signal’s black box theater sometimes results in the band drowning out the singing despite the fact that it is located at the back of the performing space; some of the book scenes at the beginning feel a little too long.  But these are truly minor for a work that is the must-see show of the spring season for me, an unusual yet touching musical that defies expectations.

Hostage Song is playimg at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., until June 9. Run and see this show, folks, you will not be disappointed!


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