Chicago Theatre Review
A Valentine to Theatre Companies
Season on the Line – House Theatre
With new theatres emerging and veteran companies unfortunately biting the dust, Shawn Pfautsch has written a play that pays homage to all those storefront companies who, year after year and season after season, struggle to not only create exciting, original works of art but to simply survive. Pfautsch also pokes fun at the playwrights, directors and artistic teams who go way overboard in their attempt to find new ways to tell familiar stories. The result is a highly entertaining, bitingly satirical look at a theatre company hoping to rebound with its newly-conceived production of “Moby Dick.”
Lights up on the Bad Settlement Theatre Company, where Ty Olwin, playing a naive young man who’s answered an ad for assistant stage manager, both chronicles the story and becomes a participant in the three-act production that follows. In many ways, Olwin mirrors Nick in “The Great Gatsby,” Dopey in “Balm in Gilead” and, especially, Ishmael in “Moby Dick,” characters who are a part of each story while also serving as narrator. These three plays comprise this fictitious company’s current season. Ben, played by Thomas J. Cox, is the company’s outrageous, long-time artistic director. Bearing a strong resemblance to the madly obsessed Ahab, captain of Melville’s whaling ship Pequod, Ben’s determined to revenge his reputation through his controversial revival of “Moby Dick.” Ben’s nemesis, however, isn’t a great white whale; it’s the great white Arthur, the formidable local theatre critic who once sunk Ben’s original production of this play 20 years ago. Now, the very survival of Bad Settlement Theatre Company, teetering on the edge of financial ruin, is riding on the success of this new production.
First and foremost, Shawn Pfautsch’s script is excellent. It’s not only a beautiful, thoughtfully written piece of entertainment that will appeal to every playgoer, but it contains hundreds of recognizable characters and moments that will ring true to denizens of the theatre world. Actors, directors, stage managers, fight choreographers, set, costume and lighting designers…even theatre critics will all see themselves and/or their fellow artists in this play. Although markedly different, Pfautsch’s play bears a strong relationship to Michael Frayn’s theatrical farce, “Noises Off” and deserves to also have a life in regional arenas long after this wonderful premier production.
Set within the dilapidated, drained swimming pool of the seedy Constellation Motel (designed by the inventive Lee Keenan), the audience is seated on all four sides of the space. This is where, due to budgetary constraints, all of Bad Settlement’s productions will be staged. Arthur, however, broadcasts his morning-after reviews from the red-velvet rows of theater seats (a la Siskel and Ebert) appearing heaven-like from above the proceedings. Jess McLeod, Artistic Associate of Highland Park’s Music Theatre Company, has brilliantly directed this production which, with a cast of 18, is no easy task. The production, like so many other House Theatre plays, seems to constantly be in motion. With assistance from choreographer Jessica Beth Redish, scene changes and occasional dance breaks are swift and economically performed.
The cast is absolutely perfect, from Ty Olwin’s realistically played, truly likable narrator/ASM to guest artist Thomas Cox as a tyrannical artistic director from hell. Maggie Kettering shines brilliantly as Day Starr, the company’s maternal stage manager who not only keeps each show running like clockwork but offers a levelheaded hold on the company’s sanity. Marika Mashburn is pricelessly funny and boundlessly energetic as Elizabeth Fricke, the director of “Great Gatsby” and a free spirit actress who defies convention. Andy Lutz is a high-voltage actor and the director of the company’s “Balm in Gilead,” dealing nonstop with frustration all around him. Shane Kenyon as Amos, a now-famous, returning company member (think John Malkovich), seems to hilariously be channeling a burnt out Nicolas Cage. Allison Latta, Danny Bernardo, Marvin Quijada and Abu Ansari all play very different, quirky, uniquely talented and devoted members of the acting company. Mary Hollis Inboden, Bob Kruse, Christopher M. Walsh and Jessica Dean Turner endure much frustration and humiliation as the company’s artistic team responsible for creating the lighting, sets and costumes. Sean Sinitski is both very funny and appropriately pompous as the city’s most influential theatre critic, the man who wields the power to make or break a production.
This is the second in a series of plays to be seen around Chicago that are based on Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s quite a different piece of theatre and, like most the House’s productions, exciting, often funny and very, very thought-provoking. For members of the theatre community, this show is a definite must-see; for everyone else, it’s a production that will both entertain and educate, while providing every theatergoer with a shipload of ideas to ponder and more fun than a pod of whales.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 12-October 26 by The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin upstairs Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 776-769-3832 or by going to www.thehousetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.