Steep Theatre’s ‘The Writer’ is a Surprising Escapist Meta Adventure

I entered The Edge Theater already wary. I was going into The Writer knowing nothing of the play except what the title tells me. That it’s about, well, a writer. A playwright.

Plays about plays tend to be didactic and masturbatory. Artists are so close to the subject that it renders the play incapable of complex analysis. As it turns out, masturbatory didacticism is intentionally the driving force of The Writer, and playwright Ella Hickson weaponizes these themes in such a way that complicates it further than other plays of the genre.

The Writer is about escapism.

In Act I, The Writer (played by Lucy Carapetyan) attempts to use her craft as an escape from her oppressive environment. She dramatizes her past in order to change and take power over it. Much to her dismay, her writing isn’t able to change her day to day struggles with the men in her life– directors, producers, even her boyfriend. Ultimately, her craft is bogged down by patriarchal oppression. This is showcased in the first scene of The Writer which is a battle between a young woman (The Writer’s self-insert) and the director of a sexist play. In order for her to take power over her oppression, she must hit her audience over the head with it.

Krystal Ortiz and Lucy Carapetyan in The Writer, photo by Randall Starr.

In Act II, The Writer switches tactics, as any good writer would. Instead of writing, she turns to queerness as a means of escape from her patriarchal world. She is seduced by the experience of sex without men. The Writer dates a younger woman– the dominant power is hers. However, it soon becomes clear that she cannot escape her demons, and instead, she becomes them. In her new relationship, she brings in all that she hates– power struggle and aggression.

This play is complicated. I found myself in the audience furiously disagreeing with The Writer’s choices. The fetishization of queer relationships, the lack of self awareness and personal responsibility from The Writer, and the 2017-esque “fuck the patriarchy” energy that the play began with immediately turned me off. As a queer person of color, I’ve had my fill of white women’s radical self-empowerment against the amorphous “patriarchy” as it relates only to them.

As the play progressed, however, it became clear that all of my woes with the character and her choices were the point of the play– I’m supposed to have an issue with her. I’m supposed to cringe. And I’m supposed to confront the ways in which I relate to her. This little “gotcha” provided by the real-life playwright, Ella Hickson, was delightful. Hickson managed to escape the trap of navel gazing by inundating her audience with it and then denouncing it. It was a refreshing end to an unrelenting play about White Womanhood.

Lucy Carapetyan brought The Writer to life. As much as the character made me cringe, Carapetyan’s performance impressed me tenfold. She was enchanting to watch, counteracting the trainwreck nature of her character by captivating the audience with her storytelling. The Writer is the center of the play (and the play within the play). Without a guiding force, it would be nothing. And Carapetyan is just that.

Sotirios Livaditis’s set paired perfectly with Georgette Verdin’s direction. We begin barren and unsuspecting. As the play builds– and it is a slow burn– the world of the play gets more and more crystalized. The set becomes fully realized. The walls feel more solid. And right when you think you land in reality, everything falls apart again. The projections throughout, designed by Erin Pleak, gave the audience a sense of weightlessness. At any moment, the play could transport us into the woods, just under the moon. Or a galaxy among the stars. Or a Picasso painting– stark and angular.

That being said, I found the overall pacing of the play a bit inactive. The scenes were, by and large, talking scenes. There was a very exciting genre break right at the top of Act II– a poetic, ensemble-based, movement sequence. But even that was paired with a pretty lengthy monologue. Structurally and intellectually, The Writer is evocative and unique. At its bones, however, it often felt a bit long-winded.

I have a certain reverence reserved only for plays that make you wait until the very end to know what it’s about. The Writer leaves you hanging until the very last second, and then ties up all loose ends in the matter of seconds, with a final flash-projection and sudden blackout.

It’s a difficult play to enjoy while you’re watching. It’s challenging, it’s uncomfortable and it’s– as predicted– didactic. There’s no character to root for, and there’s very few decisions made easily. But if it wasn’t for all these factors, it would be missing the point. When I go to a Steep Theatre production, I expect to be challenged. I expect to be trusted as an audience member to catch up with the play, because it won’t be waiting for me or holding my hand. The Writer fell right in with that expectation.

BIAS ALERT: I am coworkers with one of the actors in this production. I have also worked with the director.

The Writer runs at The Edge Theater at 5451 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640, until September 16th.

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Krystal Ortiz
Nate Faust
Lucy Carapetyan
Peter Moore
Jodi Gage
Allyce Torres

Director – Georgette Verdin
Production Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus
Scenic Design – Sotirios Livaditis
Lighting Design – Brandon Wardell
Sound Design – Thomas Dixon
Costume Design – Gregory A. Graham
Props Design – Lonnae Hickman
Projection Designer – Erin Pleak
Movement Director – Claire Bauman
Intimacy Director – Gaby Labotka
Dialect Coach – Adam Goldstein
Dramaturg – Caroline Uy
Production Manager – Jennifer Aparacio
Technical Director – Andy Cahoon
Assistant Director – Maddy Brown
Casting Director – Lucy Carapetyan
Sound Engineer/Assistant – Morgan Durdaryk
Costume Assistant – Caitlin McCarthy
Lead/Master Electrician – Kieran O’Connor
Photographer – Randall Starr

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