Chicago Theatre Review
The Sweetest Rose, the Sharpest Thorns.
Traces: A Faerie Tale – Feast Productions
If you are at all acquainted the ballad of Tam Lin, an ancient Scottish faerie tale, or in any of its modern retellings as shaped by the hands of Butcher, Pratchett, Meloy or (Traces’s patron saint) Anais Mitchell, you need to see this show. If you have no idea what Tam Lin is, but have ever struggled with the sticky mire of love (or thinking your in love, or fearing it), the gnarled nature of memory, or the feeling of being too small for the world you inhabit, you need to see this show. Tended by the expert hands of playwright Shannon Pritchard and director Jessica Fisch Traces blossoms into a gorgeous reinterpretation of a brilliant story, sharp-witted as it is great hearted, humorous as it is terrifying and familiar as it is fantastic.
Under the guidance of the ‘musing storyteller Busker (Patric Budde) we set ourselves one fine day in the Lincoln Park Farmer’s Market, Jenny (Kristen Johnson) runs into the mysterious but chivalrous Tom (Will Kiley), who leads her through a gorgeous afternoon and an unforgettable night. But when, six later, Jenny finds herself with child, she has no way to contact him, nor information that could lead to his discovery and her memories of him are devilishly slippery and peculiarly immersive. As she struggles to pick out this man of mystery amid the city of Chicago (and debating whether she even wants him in her life) Jenny finds herself into dangerous company eventually falling in with Summer (Stella Martin), Tom’s … benefactor (it’s complicated), a powerful women with a plans, plans that require who Jenny’s removal from this story, by any means necessary.
Despite the magic and the monsters though, Traces is not only a romp of magical realism, but a biting satire of the hardscrabble life amid the coffee shops and famers markets on the North Side as well. Pritchard’s humor is sassy and smart, and a constant buoy as the story takes darker and dangerous twists. It’s true that her musings on the nature of time and the shortcomings of the modern thought, while always clever do at times tangle the action; many of Busker’s sardonic asides feel as though they belong to a sister play. But always timely and always compelling is her exploration of the odd string wound between her principals. Jenny and Tom are not your typical pair of romantic leads; their doubts, their arguments, their struggles are unlike any I’ve seen hashed out on stage before; it’s high time someone picked apart the hazards of love, not just the high highs and the low-lows but the tempting delights and itching inconveniences in-between.
Pritchard knows all glories of her source text (and a great many outlying stories besides, anyone familiar with the real fairytales will have a field day of chills and thrills as Jenny comes within inches of falling foul of the fair folk) and perfectly welds them into a contemporary world. Of all the old stories Tam Lin begs be told in this day and this age. It’s a useful story as well as a beautiful one: a story about taking the risks, about knowing when to wager all. It’s Heroine survives life threatening perils and soul destroying hardships by her wits, her tenacity, and her gumption rather than her beautify or her “goodness”, or the kindness of supernatural strangers. The stories Hero, or distressed dude, is a genuinely good man in seriously bad trouble. As for the Adversary, rather than merely “wicked” we find a force perfectly human in her hurt, but remorseless and indomitable as a Chicago winter. These are unconventional roles, full fleshed creations that we need to hear, and rendered by actors who know their business. Johnson nails Jenny, fully inhabiting her bounce and bouts of anxiety, playing both her giddiness and ferocity to a T. Kiley, playfulness, though sometimes physically edging on the loose, shows us a true gentleman, not just charming but sincere as well. And Martin’s stillness and chillingly refined menace melts to show a tiny glimpse of naked need, both pitiless and pitiable.
But Pritchard’s intricacies and her casts earnestness truly come alive under Fisch’s storytelling. Ably capable of juggling Pritchard’s satiric pith and supernatural peril simultaneously Fisch’s greatest success is, in the tiny corner of The Frontier, has not only able to adequately conjure great swaths of Chicago and keep the show’s blood pumping, but conjure magic out of the very walls, in a ways that the grandest space or the biggest budget could never match. Her collaborations with lighting designer Lindsey Lyddan are particularly successful: when Summer gets down to mortal-crushing business the strobe lights render the nightmare crystal clear and electrifyingly dangerous.
She also knows how to handle the plays three clowns. In addition to Busker (whose wisecracks and troubadour dourness Budde lobs with aplomb, all while providing luscious underscoring) there are a host of Chicago denizens centered around Jenny’s steadfast but easily sidetracked roommate Lita (Sasha Smith) and her story-wise co-worker Miles (Maximillian Lapine). Smith matches Johnson in the finesse of her comedy, (her “judgmental look” is priceless) as well giving us occasional moments of compassion, breaths in an otherwise hectic rush. Lapine not only earns his stripes as a master storyteller in Miles but best inhabits the space of dangerous comedy the play demands: the hilarity serious persons fully invested in ridiculous ideas, who can carry them across the threshold of humor to horror in an eye blink. His apple merchant is absolutely delicious.
Whether you know Tam Lin or not, Traces is a story too good to be missed. It’s a celebration (or an introduction) to a masterful story, but it cleves close to the spirit of the city it was raised in: both the pride and the embarrassments, the glories and the shadows of Chicago and the people who live in it. It will bowl you over with its spectacle, tickle you with its humor, steal your breath with its peril, and give voice to feelings and fears that no other play, to my knowledge, has yet held up. Sharp and tender, Traces is a show to remember, “all of winter’s night, and all of summer’s day.”
Reviewed by Ben Kemper
Created by Feast Productions At the Frontier, 1106 W Thorndale off the Thorndale redline.
All Performances at 8:00
Tickets available at JackalopeTheatre.org
For more information visit Theaterinchiago.com