When I stepped into How To Defend Yourself, Lilliana Padilla’s brilliant new play making its Chicago premier at Victory Gardens Theater, I thought I knew where this story would end before it had even begun. In the wake of their friend’s sexual assault, a few college students, all from different social groups, gather to hold a self-defense workshop. Naturally, I assumed, the girls would learn to respect each other for their differences and become friends, the workshop would help them to feel empowered in their bodies, and we would walk away feeling that the unifying force of our girl power is enough to take on the dark underbelly of the patriarchy. Of course, that’s never how it feels in real life. And this play, directed with care and consciousness by Marti Lyons, honors a truth far more painful and real. How To Defend Yourself is a dismantling of the stories that women tell to each other and to ourselves about how to safely walk through the world.
How can a play feel both dated and relevant? Stereotypical yet viscerally authentic? Generic yet highly specific?
Coming off the heels of its 50th year anniversary revival run on Broadway, Boys in the Band, directed by Carl Menninger, is currently playing at Windy City Playhouse in an immersive theatre style. It is considered one of the first mainstream plays to depict gay men in earnest, without resorting to tokenization or jokes. The plot centers around five gay friends who throw a birthday party for their acerbic friend, Harold (Sam Bell Gurwitz), at Michael’s (Jackson Evans) apartment. Coupling Harold’s late arrival is an unsuspected visit by Michael’s college friend, Alan (Christian Edwin Cook), who does not know Michael is gay. As the night unravels, the friends gradually get more drunk and let their insecurities loose. Though the language is notably dated — like the use of “homosexual” instead of “gay” and several racialized comments — the feelings of ostracization and self-loathing from not being validated is a timeless sentiment. The play is timeless; the production feels dated, getting trapped in the time period and inhibiting the story’s ability to radiate its more universal themes.
Roe at The Goodman Theatre, written by Lisa Loomer and directed by Vanessa Stalling, begins in the past, from the first court case of Roe v. Wade in 1970, and continues well on into the 2000s. The story itself brings in lots of quotes, monologues, facts, and information to give the audience, along with telling a segmented narrative from Norma, the woman behind Roe. This is a lot of information for any audience to take in under two hours, especially given that the show jumps in time. While there is a lot of talking to the audience in the show, we never really learn anything new about the case or who Norma really is. The show isn’t so much about Roe as it is about glimpses of ideas without a solid foundation.
Do You Feel Anger marries high absurdist comedy with a nuanced discussion of empathy and gender politics. The seemingly mind boggling combination enchants, making for an enjoyable yet haunting evening of comedy.
Shortly after her parents unexpectedly separate, Sofia (Emjoy Gavino) begins her assignment as an empathy coach at a debt collection agency. The office is headed by Jon (Lawrence Grimm), a smooth-talking exec who tries to sell Sofia on his nice guy facade. As she ignores calls from her mother (Jennifer Jelsema), Sofia attempts to wrap her head around the branch’s kooky culture and break the impenetrable wall of its three low-level employees: Jordan (Bernard Gilbert), a suave, self-proclaimed poet, Howie, who devolves into infantile antics when emotionally provoked, and Eva (Sadieh Rifai), a self-effacing chatterbox who is mugged daily in the kitchen—a fact that phases none of her coworkers. All three are haunted by the absence of Jenny, a worker who attempted to burn down the office in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Jenny’s cardigan still hangs on the back of one of the conference chairs. As Sofia comes to understand their workplace environment, the sweater grows in eerie prominence. Fearing for her safety, Sofia begins to assimilate.
If/Then, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and directed by Elyse Dolan, is a musical about a city planner named Elizabeth (Amanda Giles) who has just moved to New York after a difficult divorce. In the show’s first moments, she meets some friends in Central Park and is soon presented with a choice: does she go with her friend Lucas (Parker Guidry) to a protest, or does she go with her other friend Kate (Bridget Adams-King) to an outdoor concert in Brooklyn? The following scenes alternate between the two universes created by this seemingly insignificant choice. The Elizabeth who goes with Lucas acquires the nickname of Beth, and soon lands a dream job designing parks in the city. The Elizabeth who goes with Kate soon acquires glasses, and is nicknamed Liz. She does not get her dream job, but eventually pursues a relationship with ex-soldier Josh (Michael Peters), with all the ups and downs that entails.
The ensemble work is incredibly strong; choreographer Katie Capp has created a fast-moving New York City, with all its frantic terror and vibrance, using only the bodies onstage. Music direction (Rachel Hoovler) contributes to the worldbuilding by constructing complex harmonies sung by the ensemble that paint the noise of the city; the singing from the entire cast is excellent. The set, from designer Jeremy Hollis, is mostly brick walls and doorways at odd angles, flexibly portraying a wide variety of locations while also contributing to the general NYC funk. I adore this minimalist approach to musical storytelling; it was thoroughly effective in Brown Paper Box Co’s previous show Little Women last year, and is just as well done here. The small band and barebones design accentuate that this is a show with a very small scope; not about revolutions or worlds, but the inner lives of everyday people.
Fresh out of Victory Garden’s 2019 IGNITION Festival, Meghan Brown’s The Tasters, has found an apt home in this World Premiere production at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. Set in a dystopia where food shortages are the norm and the markers of democracy are quickly fading away, this play, directed by RTE member Devon de Mayo, focuses on the “tasters,” the people of this world tasked with tasting food for poison before it is eaten by government leaders. The production excels at displaying this dystopia on stage; however, the direction seems more attentive to the worldbuilding and design than these women’s relationships or struggles.
Often nostalgia and trauma share the same home. For Isaac Gomez, that place is El Paso, Texas. His new script, Leopard Play, or sad songs for lost boys, features a character who is only billed as “Son.” After ten years, Son returns to El Paso for a memorial in honor of his uncle who died of a heart attack — or at least that’s what the autopsy says. In a search for answers surrounding his uncle’s mysterious death, Son must confront painful family dynamics and his own romantic relationships. In Steep Theatre’s world premiere production, directed by Laura Alcalá Baker, the past squares off against the present for an electrifying and emotive piece of theatre. The Leopard Play will have you wanting to call your parents and go out dancing.
As Sheepdog opens, Amina, a black police officer, tells the story of her life-changing relationship with Ryan, a white officer on the Cleveland police force. Doubt wedges itself between the two when an officer in their department shoots and kills a young black man. The script, from playwright Kevin Artigue, is raw and romantic. Wardell Julius Clark directs this heartbreaking love story with an empathy that informs the entire performance. This tender, stylized production is directed with a care that is dangerously vulnerable. Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Sheepdog places tragedy under the microscope to discover a kaleidoscopic blend of the beautiful and the ugly.
Stop Kiss by Diana Son is the story of two young women, Sara (Kylie Anderson) and Callie (Flavia Pallozzi), living in New York in the late nineties. Each scene in the play alternates between two timelines; half of the scenes depict Sara and Callie as they meet for the first time, develop a friendship, and then slowly realize that their friendship might be something much deeper, lovelier, and more serious than they initially thought. Other scenes depict a near future where Sara is attacked by a violent man after her and Callie’s first kiss, in an act of homophobic violence. Callie must deal with the various reactions of friends, family, police, and the news media, while still struggling with her evolving feelings for Sara.
Stop Kiss is a play about the dichotomy of being queer; its very structure is a contrast between discovering the joy and freedom of stepping away from societal norms, and the pain caused by an unjust society which punishes that discovery at every turn. Director Kanomé Jones has put together an ensemble that understands this dichotomy on a visceral level, with the result that this collaboration between Pride Films and Plays and Arc Theatre touched something deep within my little queer heart in a way that no show in recent memory has.
Editor’s Note: Three members of the Chicago dance community, Alyssa Gregory, Erin Kilmurray, and Nora Sharp approached Rescripted with a community-minded approach to celebrating the quality of Chicago’s dance world in 2019. The survey and its results were compiled in an effort by these folks to ensure all of the pieces lifted up by their community could be mentioned. We have so enjoyed embarking on this journey with them and learning more about the dance community by celebrating them. We hope you will too.
Alyssa, Erin, and Nora: As Best-Of 2019 lists rolled out, we found ourselves reflecting on what kind of work receives recognition, whose voice has a say in selecting such highlights, what those chosen works signify, and through the lens of what platforms. How do these lists impact the broad and varied dance communities that call Chicago home? Honestly, what even is Chicago live dance performance? Continue reading “Celebrating 2019 Chicago Dance: A Community Sourced List”