Ellen Under Glass

By Ben Lobpries
Directed by Tommy Rapley
The House Theatre of Chicago
Storefront Theater Gallery 37 Center for the Arts
66 East Randolph
Chicago, Illinois

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 3, 2006

Movement, Music, and Lyrical Language Combine in ELLEN UNDER GLASS

  • “We’ve already made our mistake; now we have to live with it.”
  • “Art is a celebration not a competition, so we call them festivals.”

The House Theater of Chicago presents a world premier experience at the Storefront Theater’s black box location on Randolph Street.  This adventure is part dance, part music, part prose, part magic, and all enchanting.  Those who are more familiar than this reviewer with the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe, credited with inspiring details of plot and language, will enjoy parsing the references.  Those not familiar with the specifics of Poe’s work and life will also have a lovely experience with these young actors, dancers, and musicians.

Ellen Underhill (played to lithe perfection by Carolyn Defrin) leads off the performance with a dance of sorrow and mourning, holding a paper with an unexplained symbol, before a window that we soon realize represents a grave.  Through dance and dialogue, we learn that Ellen has lost her mother, that the symbol represents Ashtarte (“mother earth, mother of god, mother to all”), and that Ellen is pregnant with her boyfriend Jeremy’s (Chris Matthews) child.  Ellen soon reveals that she does not want to marry Jeremy, spends time with her gay friend Gus (played energetically and charmingly by Patrick Andrews), and is not sure about her next steps.  Ellen has a serious accident, marvelous effects are achieved through movement and dance representing Ellen’s (imagined?)  trip to a spiritual/mystical place where she encounters the beautiful Jezebel (Dominica Wasilewska), the angry and strong Joan (Joan, perhaps Joan of Arc, played and danced charmingly by Paige Hoffman), and several characters called Fallen Angels whose job it is to keep the physical and spiritual worlds separate (danced by Christal Walls, Caryn Ott, and Lauren McCarthy).  Fannie Hungerford lovingly dances a maternal figure (named Maria in the cast listing) who appears to stand for the longed for mothers of Joan and of Ellen at different points in the action.

This is not a plot but emotion-driven experience.  Among the highlights for this reviewer is a solo dance by Ellen’s spiritual fellow traveler Joan late in the play, a dance of sorrow that intensely mirrors the solo dance by Ellen in the first scene.  One satisfying dramatic point of emotional resolution is represented by several characters embracing late in the play, including the frequently feuding Joan and Jezebel in the spiritual realm (are these parts of Ellen’s spirit?), and Ellen and boyfriend Jeremy in the real world.

Original music and the occasional standards (such as “I’ll Fly Away”) are featured throughout by Eddie and the Panes, greeting audience members as they enter the theatre, continuing throughout the piece, and after the curtain calls.  The talented members of Eddie and the Panes are Devin Preitauer, Ben Lobpries, Maria McCullough, Emily Spiegel, and Mike Przygoda.

Costumes by Michelle Zlatanovski work sparing and effectively.  Special notice should be made of the warrior like bandage wrappings sported by Joan in the spirit world – evocative and simple and becoming and perfectly executed.  Lighting by Lee Keenan and scenic design by Tom Burch work fabulously and richly in this small space, set for this performance as a three sided square.  You are in the middle of things with this group of young artists which is precisely where you want to be.


© Martha Wade Steketee (April 3, 2006)

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