A Phenomenal and Heartbreaking ‘Lela & Co.’ Extends at Steep

By Hallie Palladino

Steep Theatre has just extended its devastating and urgently important play, Lela & Co. I wanted to take a moment to recommend this production and encourage people to see it now that it has been extended through September 16th.

I feel so fortunate to have seen Cruz Gonzales-Cadel play Lela in this heartbreaking two-hander opposite Chris Chmelik. Gonzales-Cadel has phenomenal range. We immediately fall in love with Lela as she disarms us with her charm and draws us into her story.We start in Lela’s childhood home with a loving mother and a father who alternates between indulgent and abusive. The limited abilities of women to shield each other from harm is a theme established early. As the dangers around her multiply, we watch Lela transform from an innocent child into a determined and courageous woman. For his part, Chmelik plays a host of villains, each fully fleshed out, each differently evil. Written by the British playwright Cordelia Lynn when she was just twenty-six, Lela is original in every way. Lynn speaks the unspeakable and holds us all accountable.

I won’t describe or summarize the story because much of its dramatic value is in its surprises. We never know what’s about to happen and, like Lela, we feel powerless to stop the cascade of horrors that unfold as she recounts her story. I’ve never felt so much real fear, rage and despair in the theater. A big part of it was knowing, more than a play, what happens to Lela is happening to to girls and women around the world every day.

Lela examines the way women become casualties of war showing how their stories are coopted, their voices silenced and their abuse marginalized. The narrative style creates the experience of being inside the head of a women who has internalized the narrative of her abusers along side the truth of her lived experience. This gives the audience an opportunity to experience the cognitive dissonance that results from trauma. The tone of Robin Witt’s direction creates jarring juxtapositions between the events that happen to Lela and the way she describes them. Lela uses a range of coping techniques from detachment, to rationalization, to minimizing, to self-blame. All the time as her underlying grief, rage and pain are straining to be let out. By the time Lela hits its crescendo and the playwright allows her character to enact a desperately longed for moment of confrontation all the air goes out of the room.

The space has been transformed into an intimate café with limited cabaret style seating and the actors perform on raised platforms above our heads. The action happens around the audience so we’re immersed and therefore implicated in Lela’s predicament. All the design elements seamlessly support this atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia.

I must end with a really big trigger warning here. There is graphic sexual violence both portrayed and discussed. This play deals plainly with some of the darkest subject matter I’ve ever heard onstage. Lela explicates the economic and political circumstances of war and how they enable the exploitation of women. Lynn’s story also reveals the tragic irony of how third party “liberating” and “peacekeeping” forces in conflict zones participate in crimes against women. No, Cordelia Lynn’s play isn’t easy to watch, but it is essential.

BIAS ALERT: Cruz and I know each other from Something Marvelous and have bonded over having children around the same age. Likewise, I know Peter Moore, Steep’s Artistic Director, because our kids were in the same class and I’ve submitted my work to his literary department. All this just means I was already a fan of the theater and of Cruz before I went to see this play.

Extended through September 16th!

CAST:
Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel
Chris Chmelik

PRODUCTION TEAM:
Director – Robin Witt*
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus**
Set Design – Joe Schermoly
Lighting Design – Brandon Wardell**
Sound Design – Thomas Dixon**
Costume Design  – Jessica Kuehnau Wardell
Prop Design – Maria DeFabo**
Fight Choreography – Christina Gorman
Dramaturg – Carina Abbaticchio
Assistant Directors – Michael Rogerson & Isabel Perry
Production Manager – Julia Siple*

*Denotes Steep Company Member
**Denotes Steep Artistic Associate

The Comrades ‘In The Wake’ Examines Liberal Blind Spots Post 9/11

Lisa Kron’s 2010 play In the Wake, produced by The Comrades at the Greenhouse Theater, revisits the political events of 2000-2005 beginning with the Supreme Court decision in Bush vs. Gore. In the Wake is concerned with the ways American liberals, especially privileged white coastal liberals, develop blind spots that prevent them from fully understanding the life circumstances that might cause a person to cultivate a conservative viewpoint. This is a timely subject in the wake of Trump’s rise to power, although the play predates it. The play makes important points about the state of American political discourse though it is somewhat weighted down by an unwieldy structure.

The play centers around a twenty-something woman, Ellen (Rose Sengenberger), a liberal New Yorker distraught about the 2000 election. The play is populated by Ellen’s boyfriend Danny (Mike Newquist), his sister Laurie (Erin O’Brien), Laurie’s wife, Kayla (Adrienne Matzen) and their friend Judi (Kelli Walker). Ellen divides her time between non-profit work and traveling around the country making speeches about the unintended consequences of public policy. At an engagement at Harvard she reconnects with a childhood friend, Amy (Alison Plot), and they begin an affair.

Unwilling to leave her current relationship, Ellen asks Danny to accept her involvement with Amy, and perhaps in the wake of some guilt about his own long since confessed infidelity, he resigns himself to the fact his girlfriend is in a second relationship. Meanwhile Amy falls madly in love with Ellen and begs her to leave Danny. But Ellen is in denial about how much emotional damage she is inflicting on both her lovers. Meanwhile, Laurie and Kayla strongly disapprove and their relationship with Ellen is badly strained.

The best moments zeroed in on Ellen’s relationships. Alison Plot’s performance as Amy was a highlight. Plot does a nice job of portraying the agonizing experience of loving someone who is emotionally unavailable. The brief but touching love scene between Ellen and Amy is one of the most engaging moments of the play. And when Ellen makes things worse with empty platitudes about holding Amy in her heart, Amy’s pain feels very real. Kelli Walker’s performance as the world-weary Judi is also notable. Judi brings perspective about growing up poor in a small conservative town and then spending her career abroad working in refugee camps. Walker’s deadpan delivery also brings some much needed humor into an otherwise very serious play.

Ellen’s character mainly talks at her friends and family, this is by design. The point of the play is that Ellen sincerely believes if other people just had the same information they would always agree. Rose Sengenberger plays Ellen as passionate and earnest so we understand it is not malice on her part but rather an astounding lack of self awareness, which Kron uses to make a point about the way liberals have contributed to the bitter partisanship that is dividing our country.

Unfortunately Ellen’s long speeches have the impact of slowing down the pace. To compound this the action is broken up by news clips and direct address monologues giving this two hour and twenty minute show a choppy stop-and-start effect. The play relies heavily on historical footage to establish what’s happening in the outside world. But news clips alone, though they might have an emotional impact, are not inherently dramatic. Unfortunately, the current events in the play often feel like a backdrop, rarely integrated into the story in a way that impacts the lives of the individual characters.

What I was really missing from the play ultimately was a connection between the personal and the political. There are two plots but they don’t intersect or illuminate each other in more than an abstract way except for a very brief conversation about 911. For instance, in a surprising omission, although the play is set pre-marriage equality, little is said about the fact the fact Laurie and Kayla’s marriage isn’t legally recognized. The practical and emotional hardships this situation created go unmentioned. This is one example of a place where the play could’ve connected the dots between its character’s hopes and dreams and the political landscape of the country at that time.

In spite of these structural and story challenges, the cast brings a lot of heart to their performances and the play makes an important point. That Americans of all political persuasions could do better job of listening to opposing viewpoints.

Fisticuffs and Feminism in The Factory Theater’s ‘Fight City’

By Hallie Palladino

In a video interview on The Factory Theater website, Artistic Director Scott OKen says of the genesis of his latest play, Fight City, “I wanted to turn the current gender politics around… [and] I wanted to do an action play…that has a real kickass female police force that beat each other up with sticks.” This is exactly what Fight City delivers in the form of a clever comedy that satirizes standard sexist tropes within the action genre.

This sixteen actor ensemble piece, skillfully directed by Jill Oliver, is set in a dystopian 2077. The world order has collapsed. Yet in spite of the elimination of guns, society is violent and lawless. Women are an all powerful majority. Men are disenfranchised and organize for equal rights. The protagonist, Barb Davies (Jennifer Betancourt) is a skilled fighter with the Central City Police Department’s elite all-female fighting force, the ironically named Peace Keepers. Her fellow wisecracking PK compatriots are played with sharp-tongued swagger by Meredith Rae Lyons (White), Almanya Narula (Avory) and Ashley Yates (Argent). Together they fight criminals while delivering witty one liners.

A defining attribute of standard cops-versus-criminals action stories is an exaggerated performance of hyper-masculine stereotypes. Seeing a cast of women embody this style draws attention to it’s absurdity. Fight City humorously explores the performance of gender in a way similar to that of ATC’s production of Jaclyn Blackhaus’s Men on Boats, directed by Will Davis earlier this season. That show examined a spectrum of masculinities by casting an all female-identifying ensemble to play a variety of male archetypes. In different ways both plays explore how rituals of masculinity function to reinforce codes of behavior within male spaces.

OKen gets a lot of comedic mileage out of this gender role reversal. He has invented a parallel vocabulary of slang to fit the female-centric culture. Crude references to both male and female anatomy illuminates the role language plays in perpetuating gender stereotypes. Narula, as Barb’s salty partner, Avory, gleefully makes dirty jokes while slapping men’s behinds. Lt. Quaife (Jen Bosworth) rags on her husband. In some of the play’s best topical humor, Richards (Grace Odumosu), cheers on her activist boyfriend but still can’t help (wo)man spreading across an entire bench, and (wo)man-splaining to the guys about how oppressed they are, all while congratulating herself on being super woke.

In addition to the silliness, OKen offers up a scathing critique of the action genre’s normalization of rape culture. Showing men being treated the way women are typically treated in action plots reveals how reliant the genre is on jokes made at the expense of women, as well as how much of the drama in this genre is generated by women’s victimization and abuse. For instance in one scene, Erica (Kim Boler), in a sinister send-up of a stock bloodthirsty-villain, gets jacked-up on crack whiffits, kills people for fun, then celebrates by raping a man she’s lured into her hideaway. Later she callously brags about it.

The male characters in Fight City employ the usual range of strategies to cope with discrimination, harassment and abuse. Some of them try to brush it off and rise above, some employ subversive humor, others organize and fight back. Weatherfoot (Harrison Weger), the first male PK, patiently puts up with sexist jeers until he gets a chance to prove his moxie, following a classic arc usually assigned to female characters. Eric Frederkison’s performance as Verne, victim turned reluctant activist, reminds us of the serious stakes for men trapped in this system. And Relf, the much abused CCPD secretary, played sensitively by Josh Zagoren, highlights how debasing harassment is for those on the receiving end. It is also Relf, seeking relief from this abuse, and perhaps revenge, that leads him to turn informant for Erica who later rapes him. Oliver appropriately presents this as a frightening and serious moment.

As one might expect, the main attraction of Fight City is its stellar fight choreography. Fight Directors Maureen Yasko and Chris Smith offer up stage combat that’s intense, realistic and bloody. (If you sit in the front you may get splattered.) The fighting style unique to the PKs is also nicely integrated into the plot in a way that both forwards the story and enhances character development. The spectacle of all female fight sequences has potential to be overly sexualized, but Oliver steers clear of this. Her focus is showcasing what women’s bodies are capable of, presenting her characters as subject, not object. Carla McDowell’s costume design well-supports this choice managing to be tastefully futuristic without being fetishistic.

In a season of Chicago theater where the subject of police violence has taken center stage, it’s impossible not to register that, in spite of it’s escapist fun, Fight City is inescapably a play about a bunch of exceedingly violent cops. And while the play doesn’t get too philosophical about the problem of police brutality, it’s at least self-conscious of this fact. When Barb’s mother Margret Davies (Mandy Walsh), legendary for her fighting skills, drops by the department she asks, “Any good kills lately?” Under Margret’s tenure suspects were routinely taken “out back” to have their necks broken. Barb retorts, “We don’t have to do that anymore.” And, although Barb does a lot of head-bashing herself, the play hints she just might be able to restore at least a bit of due process to the system.

Fight City is an entertaining summer show with a strong feminist message and loads of exhilarating fight scenes!

Photos: Michael Courier

Directed by: Jill Oliver
Written by: Scott OKen
Runs from July 21st to August 26th
Fridays/Saturdays 8pm
Sundays 3pm

CAST

Barb Davies – Jennifer Betancourt
Margaret Davies – Mandy Walsh*
Avory – Almanya Narula
Weatherfoot – Harrison Weger
Argent – Ashley Yates
White – Meredith Rae Lyons
Lt. Quaife/Noone – Jen Bosworth
Erica Burdon – Kim Boler*
Valentine – Susan Wingerter
Chandler/Thug – Brittany Ellis
Price/Thug – Megan Schemmel
Verne/Steele – Eric Frederickson
Leo – Jae K. Renfrow
Terry – Linsey Falls*
Relf – Josh Zagoren
Richards – Grace Odumosu
Understudy (Leo/Terry/Verne) – Colin Milroy*
Understudy (Weatherfoot/Relf) – Josh Greiveldinger
Understudy (Steele) – Dan Krall
Understudy (Davies/Avory) – Kim Fukawa
Understudy (Argent/White/Richards) – Josephine Longo
Understudy (Margaret/Valentine) – Elizabeth MacDougald
Understudy (Erica/Lt. Quaife/Noone) – Sara Robinson
Understudy (Chandler/Price/Thugs 1 & 2)– Cory Griffith

CREW

Playwright – Scott OKen*
Director – Jill Oliver*
Assistant Director – Kevin Alves*
Stage Manager – Phil Claudnic*
Assistant Stage Manager – Jermaine Edward Thomas*
Production Manager – Manny Tamayo*
Assistant Production Manager – Greg Caldwell*
Fight Director – Maureen Yasko
Fight Director – Chris Smith
Set Design – Sarah Lewis
Technical Director – Amie Zimmerman
Lighting Design – Emma Deane
Master Electrician – C.W. Van Baale*
Sound Design – Ben Zeman
Costume Design – Carla McDowell
Props Design – Albert Gogetem
Graphic Design – Jason Moody*
Fight Captain  –Mandy Walsh*
Fight Captain – Meredith Rae Lyons
Consultant – Maggie Scrantom
All staged intimacy was professionally designed

*Factory Ensemble Member

BIAS ALERT: Both Brittany Ellis and Ashley Yates have acted in my work in the past and I think they’re both brilliant.