Chicago Theatre Review
Rogues and Roleplaying in Pennsylvania
The Antelope Party – Theatre Wit
There are an infinite number of secret clubs and congregations around America. They appeal to just about every interest. But perhaps one of the most unusual roleplaying groups are the adult fans of “My Little Pony.” Explored in the documentary, “A Brony Tale,” filmgoers learned that there are clubs of all over the country. The mostly male participants gather at a member’s home that’s lavishly decorated to resemble the fantasy world of Equestria. They each choose their favorite character from the Hasbro cartoon, then create and wear costumes to take on the persona of the magical ponies.
The members even have their own vocabulary (a glossary is provided in the theatergoer’s program): a Pegasister, for instance, is a female Brony; a Clopper is a member who seeks sexual gratification through this roleplaying activity; a Cutie Mark is a symbol that identifies a member’s special talent and is highly celebrated, and so on. The participants, who often tend to be society’s loners, enact episodes from various seasons of the TV show, demonstrating their belief that “Friendship is Magic.”
Somewhere in the Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt a group of five young adults gather in Ben’s apartment every week to create the world of “My Little Pony.” They include Shawn, who’s the group’s most shy and insecure member; Maggie, the club’s outspoken leader and creative consultant; Ben, a sweet, cuddly teddybear of a man who ensures that the group follows the Brony rules; Doug, the most guarded and cautious member; and Rachel, whose submissiveness may become her downfall in the end.
On this particular evening a newcomer named Jean accidentally finds her way to Ben’s apartment, hoping to join the club. However, Jean’s a Truther, a member of yet another secret society, devoted to probing all the conspiracy theories that continue to circulate around 9/11. She soon discovers that this strange group of costumed adults isn’t the organization she imagined. Jean leaves as quickly as she arrived, but she makes a surprise return appearance later in the play.
We also learn that the city has gradually been responding to the brutal new reality that was perpetrated by the 2016 election. The streets are patrolled by a dangerous vigilante group of “peacekeepers” called The Neighborhood Watch. This fraternity of bullies, who form what’s also called The Antelope Party, have adopted the black heart that’s become the new normal, under the country’s authoritarian regime. When Maggie coerces her fellow Bronies to sign a pledge of allegiance to this fascist organization, the audience senses the dangerous conflict that’s about to erupt. Before long, the group’s idealistic fantasyland begins to crumble and give way to the savagery and violence of our Brave New World.
Eric John Meyer’s cautionary play, which feels drawn from today’s headlines, is having its world premiere in Chicago. It comes to life under the skillful direction of Jeremy Wechsler. When audiences enter the theater they’ll be treated to an immersive, environmental scenic design, created by the talented Joe Schermoly, enhanced with props and detailed set decor by Jesse Gaffney and lushly lit by Diane Fairchild. The immediate effect is a feast for the eyes and ears, with the whole effect bathed in Jeffrey Levin’s nostalgic 90’s sound design. Schermoly’s pretty, pastel apartment for Ben and his group is contrasted by the stark backdrops and billboards that surround, depicting Philadelphia’s gritty working class neighborhood. Karen Krolak’s elaborately detailed costumes range from the fanciful to the realistic.
The cast is first-rate, who Wechsler has soundly guided to effective results. Most of the characters undergo a transformation, journeying from kind, empathetic friends into suspicious, quarrelsome, even combative individuals. Will Allan, in one of the strongest performances of his young career, is terrific as Shawn. His gradual metamorphosis from self-conscious nerd to hostile authoritarian is chilling. Initially a sweet, reticent follower, with a crush on one of his club members, Shawn transforms into a frightening, power-hungry tyrannical dictator. Maggie, the object of his affection, experiences the reverse. Portraying this strong young woman, Anu Bhatt is, at first, a confident leader whose gift to persuade and influence others is immediately apparent. However, as the tables turn, Shawn takes control of the Antelopes and crushes both Maggie’s love and spirit. This pair of actors are the standouts in this production.
Edward Mawere’s transformation as Ben is more subtle. He’s the Brony who’s most interested in keeping the club on track. For Ben, My Little Pony is his entire world; but a sudden act of violence changes everything. Mawere eases into his new characterization with suspicion and trepidation, making Ben one of the characters with whom the audience most deeply sympathizes. Rachel is the other character. Her quiet conversion strikes a chord with theatergoers. Played with dignity and honesty by Annie Munch, Rachel feels much like Ben, not wanting their fantasy fellowship to disintegrate. She’s reluctant to sign Maggie’s pledge to the Antelope Party, and her pursuit of an alternative existence is particularly heartbreaking.
Maggie tries to appeal to Doug, a character played with vigor and gruff determination by Award-winning actor and playwright Evan Linder. She urges him to flee town with her before things get completely out of hand. Doug, however, seems confused and overwhelmed by it all. He’s, perhaps, even become brainwashed by the Antelope movement, coupled with his devotion to Maggie, the girl he once thought he knew and loved. Jean, the innocent outsider, returns to Ben’s apartment to join their club. She’s had second thoughts about joining the Bronies. Jean is brilliantly played by Mary Winn Heider. This gifted actress harbors the same ferocity and single-mindedness that she displayed in Strawdog’s superb “Great Expectations.” Ms. Heider’s character becomes the audience’s surrogate, especially as she finds her life in peril. The unimaginably dangerous situation that ends this play leaves Jean, and the rest of the characters, in limbo. The story is open-ended, leaving each audience member to decide what will happen next.
This unresolved ending almost seems like a copout on the part of the playwright. Because of this, Eric John Meyer’s new play feels like someone pulled the plug in the 11th hour. Perhaps he’s trying to cover too many ideas without thoroughly thinking them through. Meyer’s play begins as a bizarre comedy with serious overtones. But then it shifts gears and becomes a heavy drama that grows darker and more frightening. But perhaps Meyer’s script is a simply a call to arms, because it’s certainly as eye-opening and thought-provoking as George Orwell’s cautionary Animal Farm. Jeremy Wechsler’s production about rogues and roleplaying is a tense, terrifically-acted story that offers a solid evening of provocative intrigue and entertainment.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 5-February 24 by Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.