[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-LAST.html]


by Dan Rosen
Adapted from his screenplay
Directed by Mitch Golob
Infusion Theatre Company at Chopin Theatre
1543 West Division Avenue / (773) 525-8981
Through October 21, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 12, 2006

Playwright Dan Rosen has adapted his 1995 film as a provocative, timely, aggravating, efficiently told story of political frustration and homicidal instincts. In this play, “Arsenic and Old Lace” meets, well, every play that involves a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around talking. The dialogue is smart. The production is sparkling and technologically entertaining. And regardless of personal political orientation, you will confront your own reactions to political doublespeak and media overload.

This piece is truly an ensemble work with nicely balanced performances, yet each performer is allowed to create a unique character you wouldn’t mind getting to know better. Our core group of five includes two women and three men, all graduate students or of graduate student age, in a range of disciplines, living in Iowa City, Iowa. Paulie (Lois Mathilda Atkins) is pursuing a degree in social work and her partner, artist Mark (Madison Kirks), inspires a series of decisions and actions by the group after he is threatened by their first accidental dinner guest. Jude (Elaine Robinson) adds her angry, funny, sardonic humor to the mix. Luke ( Phillip James Brannon) and Peter (Geoff Rice) round out the ensemble. After a violent incident with a first dinner guest and amidst the oddly intimate effects of a heavy Midwestern rain storm courtesy of Shawne Benson‘s sound design (augmented by El trains passing near this fabulous subterranean performance space on Chicago’s West Side), the assembled crew develops a macabre plan suggestive of Alfred Hitchcock or Agatha Christie.

Luke pushes the group of friends toward their social action strategy to kill off invited individuals specifically asked to defend their sometimes heinous social and political views. The rules the group members lay out for themselves include killing “only if the person’s beliefs and views would lead to or cause harm to others.” The group believes that this rule is sufficient to hold them in check.

Characters that pass through this dining room maelstrom of atheistically existential angst include a proud Bubba gun-toting Republican Zack (Kyle Hatley), a gay baiting, homophobic priest Father Hutchens (Ed Smaron), and several additional hapless characters played by Ryan DriscollKevin Stark, and Blair Robinson. Local law enforcement is represented by kind but equally clueless Sheriff Wes Stanley (James Farruggio). The final visitor in the flesh is the media commentator we’ve gotten to know throughout the show via the masterful video design of Lucas Merino — this conservative commentator Norman Arbuthnot is played to a masterful, resonant, chest voiced ‘T’ by Doug James. Characters represented by voice alone and in person articulate extreme opinions on race, gender roles, AIDS as God’s retribution, and on and on. The death count becomes murky for us in the audience and for the characters themselves, who debate the total numbers after the intermission. “If he’s in the garden, it counts .. that’s the rule.” We realize that the rules of ordinary human interaction have been severely compromised for theses characters.

Visually, some grand choices have been made by Lucas Merino’s video design, lighting designers Charles Cooper and Michael Smallwood, and scenic designer Grant Sabin. Three sets of four small flat screen monitors are suspended in rows along the ceiling facing the three audience seating sections. Choreographed sequences of images, sometimes complementary, sometimes identical, sometimes intentionally slightly off, prepare us thematically for each subsequent scene, bombarding us with the bombast from a particular, fictional, apparently right wing commentator.

Structurally, you may initially debate whether the 100 minute play requires the planned intermission. I resisted the planned intermission before it arrived, and before I had time to reflect on the experience of the play. In the end, this break is necessary to take stock of your own reactions to the adventure, debate the issues and how they are presented in the first half, and to be prepared for the second stage of the evening.

You will respond to this production visually, thematically, artistically, dramatically. This is a play so up to the minute that with a moment’s reflection, you worry for its longevity as a work of art. Are the references too current to be understood in even a week’s or a month’s time? Whatever is thought of this play a year from now, this production is well worth the adventure up West Division to this fabulous performance space.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 12, 2006)

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