Chicago Theatre Review
180 Degree Rule at Babes with Blades
Ruth Alice Bennett (Amy E. Harmon) died, at the hight of her fame, in a studio fire on night in 1937. The celluloid she was working with touched the burning butt of a cigarette and her bright light was snuffed from the world, along with the lost masterpiece she had wagered everything to complete. That much is undisputed. But, some thirty years later, Katie Dunham (Kate Black-Spence) an aspiring film professor, has questions. The most preeminent female director in Hollywood made a lot of enemies, from the Nazis who had forced her to leave her budding career in Germany and whose influence shadowed her to tinsel town, to the studio heads who took exception to her work, and especially her close “friendship” with leading star Margo Faber (Lisa Herceg). Using determination and well researched baked goods, Dunham challenges the now reclusive Faber to reluctantly touch upon her history with Bennett and that fateful night.
Full of romance and heartbreak, justice denied and shadowy threats, M.E.H Lewis and Barbara Lhota’s 180 Degree Rule is a marvelous neo-noir. In a rare feat of theater making they, along with director Rachel Edwards Harvith and film director Carter Martin, have interlaced the live action with cuts of film recreated by the cast and projected across that back wall. Along with varied establishing shots, wipes of cigaret smoke, powerful images of characters illuminated in menacing positions, and a disturbingly accurate portrayal of the fatal fire, the film aspect is used to gild rather than distract from the live action.
Not that the live action needs any help standing out. “This is a murder mystery, but it’s also a memory play.” Harvith says, “It involves characters reaching across time to find each other. Memory plays tricks on us.”The fluid nature of the story, scenes have a way of recurring in entirely new light, and the liberal sprinkling of violence (this is after Babes with Blades Theater Company, after all, heads are going to get smashed) keep us on our toes, and, as in the best of scripts, every detail is there for a reason.
There are plenty of suspects to pull from, and the story offers us a wide variety of well written and better presented characters. Jason Andrew Narvy excels as Gilbert Bailey, a rakish British actor and friend to Margot and Ruth who came to Berlin to work in film and road Bennett’s coat tails to tinsel town. He’s joined by Kimberly Logan as Hedwige Sourile, Ruth’s editor, and the one who helps nudge Dunham closer to the truth through her whimsical french malapropisms. But the heart of the play lies in two sets of masterful hands. Harmon runs Bennet with an irrepressible bounce and go, crackling with energy like bees in lavender. Her passion for her work is so great that it took me along time to realize, and be saddened by the fact, that I could not run to the library and watch a fictional person’s fictional films. Her spunk and drive in facing down and cheerfully steamrolling those who would say no to her is deeply contrasted with the stillness of her memory, hovering in the shadows, just at the edge of sight, trying to take part in the narrative but stilled eternally. Out stripping even Harmon is Herceg’s Margot. With dazzling comedic timing, a wealth of finally hurled phrases, and a talent for pain, Herceg offers an authentic performance that goes far beyond the sterling german accent and movie-star bearing. She inhabits Margot utterly, captivating us, and makes her heartbreak as real and painful as a knife in the ribs; one of the best performances I’ve seen in many a long night.
The 180 degree rule referenced in the title refers to an old rule of film making regarding spacial relationships; always keeping two bodies in frame during conversation. In her films, Bennett broke that rule again and again, and in her death and those she touched she keeps “crossing the line” reaching back to rearrange things so that each perspective brings a little bit more to the whole. It’s a radiant love story, a chilling tragedy and a puzzle that gets the blood pumping and the heart thirsty for justice. Lewis and Lhota perhaps did not mean to follow in wake of Citizen Kane but nonetheless they have created, a superb evening of theater, that takes the tools of a genre and outstrips anything that’s been done with it before. The bones are all there, clean and articulated: the mysterious figure, a dangerous world, memories mingled like ink in water, one woman striving for the truth, and another stilled a frozen fastness, still burning. 180 Degree Rule knits it all together and brings it to life.
Reviewed by Ben Kemper
Babes with Blades Theater Company
City Lit Theatre 102- W. Bryn Mawr st. Second Floor.
4/25-5/21 Thur-Sat at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00 (Wednesday 5/11 and 5/18 at 8)
$22, students and seniors $14.
For more information go to TheaterinChicago.com