Chicago Theatre Review
Punk – New Colony
New Colony is a theatre company known for its enthusiastic devotion in encouraging new artists while developing their work for audiences. They’ve staged over 25 world premiere plays and musicals, earning a number of impressive awards. In their current production we get yet one more drama that takes place inside the microcosm of a men’s prison. Prison dramas are not new. The Evening Standard cites among the top five lockdown plays Tennessee Williams’ “Not About Nightingales,” recently seen at Raven Theater, and the Kander and Ebb musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” produced with artistry by BoHo Theater Company.
This new play, set in the Queens Unit of a maximum-security prison, a sector sensitively devoted to housing gay, bisexual and transgender inmates, explores the backstories of six diverse individuals. Miss Olivia is the prison official presiding over and fighting for the rights of her incarcerated family. She must answer to an unseen Warden via frequent telephone conversations and emails. More often than not, Miss Olivia, played with great strength, empathy and dignity by Monette McLin, is thwarted at every turn. Her budgetary demands are challenged, cut nearly by half, and her program is watered down to a dangerous level. Still the valiant woman tries again and again, all for the benefit of her inmates.
Among the prisoners we meet are Sonya, a transgender inmate who’s been entrusted by Miss Olivia to work in her office as a file clerk. The character is played with grace and gravity by Evie Riojas. While sometimes her lines are too soft to be heard or understood clearly, Riojas offers a regal portrayal of an independent individual demanding only respect during her incarceration. Georgia, played by Aaron Sanchez, is up for parole. Sanchez’s lighthearted portrayal and line delivery, while sometimes poignant, also supplies the little humor found in this play. Glen is a sad young man who’s been imprisoned for having an affair with a teenager, a boy he’s still pining for after all these months. Believing the young man wasn’t a minor, Glen, played with quiet sensitivity by Kyle Encinas, harbors a personal guilt for his crime that extends beyond his jail sentence.
Into this guarded environment comes a new inmate. Travis is being imprisoned for killing a gay man, but he claims he’s bisexual, in order to be placed in this safer, less violent sector of the prison. Because of the nature of his crime, Travis is greeted with disdain by his fellow inmates and, for a while, understandably shunned by them. Sonya, his cellmate, is the first to show Travis a modicum of friendliness and respect, no less than she expects from him. Travis, played with an antagonistic edge by Daniel Shtivelberg, is also a young father. He receives occasional visits from Emily, his provocative girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. Their volatile relationship would make an excellent play, in itself. Travis is the catalyst that drives the conflict of this drama and, although the final scenes are a bit melodramatic, a temporary, shady resolution is provided.
This is a work in progress, as are most of New Colony’s productions. Seen here in its world premiere, playwright Michael Allen Harris has the germ of an interesting new play. It joins the ranks of other dramas set within the confining world of a prison. Uriel Gomez’s costumes are appropriate; Jeffrey Levin’s sound design works well, as does Eric Watkins’ lighting.
Eleanor Kahn has made the most of the Den Theatre’s intimate space, however there are a few problems with her scenic design. Set far upstage is Miss Olivia’s office, an acting area often obstructed from view by the wooden beams of the window that encloses her space. For many of the scenes, the actors performing here are at least partially hidden from view.
The play’s frequent scene changes offer yet another challenge. Costumed as a prison guard, an uncredited backstage technician is assigned the Herculean task of dragging two enormous bunkbeds on and off the stage with regularity. Often, these beds even house one or more of the actors, as well. She singlehandedly sets up other less demanding scenes, as well; but perhaps the problem could’ve been remedied if the beds had remained stationary. Since they’re used so often, the other scenes could easily be set downstage, with lighting separating the two areas. Perhaps the cells could’ve occupied one side of the stage and Miss Olivia’s office the other, so the audience would be able to see both equally well. As staged now, this drama becomes a play about moving oversized furniture.
In yet another world premiere, New Colony admirably encourages and supports the new work of Michael Allen Harris, an up-and-coming area playwright. Co-directed by Diana Raiselis and Katrina Dion, the production tells a worthwhile story, but has some problems with staging and its confining scenic design. With so many scenes, this might’ve been a story better suited for film, but, when these problems are solved and the play’s melodramatic ending refined a bit, Harris’ latest play will surely find a life outside of this production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 4-November 5 by New Colony at the Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office or by going to www.thenewcolony.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.