Chicago Theatre Review
The Apps Have It
The Compass – Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults
Wouldn’t it be fun or maybe simply a relief to have an app on our phones that could make every decision for us? That’s the premise behind Michael Rohd’s exciting, controversial drama playing for a limited time at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre. This play, set in the near future, actually begins in the theatre lobby. When they collect their tickets, audience members are told that, instead of being seated in the usual manner, they’ve been randomly assigned to one of ten groups around the auditorium who will form an interactive jury for the dramatic trial that lies ahead. There are also characters in several corners of the waiting area doing on-camera interviews, that theatergoers can observe before the play begins. Once everyone’s in his seat, the drama commences.
In 2017 the inventor and the entrepreneur of a brand new app called the Compass advertises the launch of their latest product to the public. In a stylish, high-tech presentation, marketed primarily for savvy teenagers eager for the next new thing, we’re told that this new devise promises to enable everyone to make difficult decisions. Tapping into an individual’s online profile, examining every choice he’s made in the past, this app guarantees to tell a person what he would do, not what he should do.
The following year, Marjan, a smart, conscientious 16-year-old student, makes a life-changing decision using her Compass app. When she notices some fellow students carrying guns, Marjan writes an article for her school newspaper about how easy it’s become to bring firearms to school. When Mr. Ferguson, Marjan’s favorite teacher, objects to publishing the article, her peers decide to protest his decision. They support their friend’s concern by encouraging everyone to bring a gun to school the next day. When Marjan hears about this potentially dangerous situation she consults her Compass app about what to do. The app recommends she call in a phony bomb threat, so that the school will be evacuated that day and no one will run the risk of getting hurt. As a result Marjan is arrested and tried for committing a serious felony.
This is when the play becomes truly exciting. As the trial progresses, witnesses are called and the two opposing attorneys debate the young girl’s innocence. But—and here’s the flashy component of this play—the jury is actually the entire audience. The story, which jumps back and forth in time, pauses occasionally throughout, during which ten actors, who play jurors and facilitators, break the fourth wall and leave the stage. Each is assigned to one of the ten audience groups. They join the playgoers in the auditorium and question them about the proceedings. The facilitators then record their groups’ responses, which becomes the dialogue delivered onstage by these actor jurors. As a result, the verdict and the conclusion of the play rests in the collective hands of the audience.
But even more exciting is how eye opening and educational this play is for young theatergoers. Rohd offers a dangerous, 1984-like scenario in which a mind-controlling electronic device takes over. It’s reach is multifold. The play raises questions about who’s responsible for decision-making and, if choices are influenced or dictated by an electronic application, are they as wise as those made by the individual. The play deals with peer pressure, knowing and doing the right thing and trusting authority figures. Everything that happens is sparked by a technology that’s surpassed the individual, as well as by the effects of a country’s irresponsible, out-of-control gun policies.
Michael Rohd not only created this brilliant performance piece, he’s directed it with skill and confidence. The ominous threat that this piece harbors is subtle, yet very important. Mr. Rohd keeps the focus where it’s needed while driving his talented ensemble toward a conclusion that, understandably, will be different at each performance. Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design is simple and straightforward, but it’s J.R. Lederle’s lighting, Rick Sims’ sound design and Joseph A. Burke’s projections that transport us into this near-future world.
Mr. Rohd has cast an ensemble of strong, capable actors to tell his story. Ariana Burks is a conscientious and conflicted Marjan. Ms. Burks is fresh and honest. She plays a character whose heart is in the right place but, as a youngster, her decision-making skills are still developing. Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Sean Parris are equally smart, powerful and convincing in their arguments as the Prosecutor and Defense Attorney. Jonathan Nieves plays Chaz, Marjan’s best friend, with authentic devotion and adolescent swagger. Tim Hopper is both the Entrepreneur and Mr. Ferguson, portrayed with equal parts authority and concern. Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel is affable and confident as Ada, the app’s creator, and as one of the Facilitator/Jurors. The other skilled facilitators include Lindsey Barlag Thornton, Bryan Bosque, Jasmin Cardenas, Melissa Duprey, Krystal McNeil, Abby Pajakowski, Emilio G. Robles and Alejandro Tey.
This exciting play is a must-see for audiences of all ages, but particularly for young theatergoers. It’s an important performance piece that will spark hours of post-show discussion about its subject matter, as well as providing a hands-on opportunity to participate in the American judicial process. It’s bound to raise all kinds of questions and inspire research about the path of technology, the moral responsibility behind decision-making and the need for stronger gun control laws. This play will make audiences think carefully about how choices are made and what would happen if that freedom is taken away and replaced or controlled by technology. This is a very important play in a production that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 24-March 12 by Steppenwolf Theatre (for Young Adults) in their Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com