Chicago Theatre Review
The Confusing Symmetry of Living
A Map of Virtue – Cor Theatre
At once poetic and terrifying, enlightening and confusing, Erin Courtney’s perplexing Obie Award-winning play will be remembered as one of this season’s most moving, yet frustrating theatrical experiences. The story is filled with references, images and metaphors about birds and runs the gamut of emotions, while maintaining a strict symmetry, both within its structure and plot; but ask audiences what the play was actually about and you’ll see a lot of shaking heads and perplexed looks.
Nestled within the intimate confines of Rivendell’s intimate theatre space, Cor Theatre’s Artistic Director Tasha Fowler has staged a slick, polished production that feels true to the playwright’s intent and showcases the talents of her seven talented actors. Tierra G. Novy’s sparse set is the wooden framework of a house laced with hundreds of origami birds strung between the timbers. Chairs and simple, representative props flesh out the production, while Jeffrey Levin’s unique sound design brings to mind the electroacoustic soundtrack created for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic film, “The Birds.”
Initially narrated by Scottie Caldwell, as the voice of a tiny meadowlark statue, the actress hovers about the stage and in the shadows watching and commenting on the other characters. Frequently speaking directly to the audience, the remaining six actors provide their own narratives eventually leading up to the terrifying second half of this 85-minute play. When the characters stop telling and finally begin doing, finally able to become involved with each another in the present, the play takes on a new immediacy and excitement. The playwright has said that her play is “about fantasizing about other people’s lives, thinking their lives are better than their own; really, we are all just trying to get by.”
What exactly happens in this play? The lives of two strangers become entwined. Sarah is an artist who notices something in Mark, a young gay man who carries a small bird statue around in his pocket. Random meetings and strange coincidences eventually bring these two together. While attending a party together, along with Sarah’s husband Nate, their new “friend” June kidnaps the threesome. She steals their phones and IDs and, with the help of her thug-like partner Ray, holds the three hostage in a remote rural cottage. The abuse and torture that occurs during this portion of the play is difficult to watch and, while more exciting than all the narration that preceded it, seems unmotivated and at odds with what has come beforehand. A somewhat happy conclusion is welcome but feels strangely tacked on at the end.
As mentioned, the cast are all very good. Ms. Caldwell is eloquent and arresting as the narrating Bird Statue, a somewhat Greek Chorus of one. Mallory Nees, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anna Kendrick, brings a quirky charm and spunk to her portrayal of Sarah. Will Von Vogt plays Mark with a subdued childlike wonder and surprise at what life continues to throw at him. Nick Mikula and Ruban Adorno are Nate and Victor, the two men in Sarah’s and Mark’s lives, both played with strength and unexpected vulnerability. Eleni Pappageorge and Adam Benjamin each create a bi-polar craziness in kidnappers June and Ray.
Cor Theatre’s first production of its new season follows its mission statement of exploring the hero within, while acknowledging that certain intrinsic values connect us. As a riff on symmetry, Erin Courtney’s play is an interesting creative exercise. If it were part of a new works festival, this piece would stand out as fascinating and noteworthy. The play definitely inspires thought and discussion because it elicits so much empathy and terror from its audience. However, with so many questions left unanswered by the end of the performance, it remains a frustrating, confusing experience. Despite thoughtful staging by a passionate director, a talented cast of committed actors and some excellent technical support, while exploring life’s symmetry, this play ultimately feels very uneven.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 8-February 14 by Cor Theatre at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by the box office at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.cortheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.