History haunts us: 'Bloody Bathory', 'Sugar in Our Wounds', 'I Am Going...', & 'Stay on the Line'
Updated: Dec 1, 2019
Over the recent years, I've embraced autumn as my favorite season. Sadly in Chicago, it only lasts a short while (we are bracing ourselves for another snowstorm as I type this). This tepid, exciting time of transformation hangs in the chilly air and lies hidden within the crisp foliage providing a charming, scenic backdrop for reflection.
As the surroundings outside my door change, fall seems to be a reason to celebrate the season in theatre too. During this time of year, I've consistently witnessed the most daring, astonishing works in vastly different ways. There's an unspoken permission to start the season off strong whether with a world premiere, to seize an apt opportunity to crossover with Halloween, or a general openness to implement bold and unique concepts. Of course these elements pop up in shows throughout the year, but like autumn there's a sweet spot that salivates this metamorphosis on our stages now.
Upon first entering the steps of Epworth United Methodist Church, it feels like you're welcomed into a living tale of Poe. With sounds of pattering rain, looming candles in disconcerting darkness and a ghoulish ensemble waiting to devour you, it's enough to send chills up your spine. The ambiance of this immersive experience is well executed from start to finish. Directed by Molly H. Donahue and written by Millie Rose, a tidal wave of family secrets, missing girls and endless rooms (thirteen in actuality) are unleashed to cipher through.
Rose stars as the suspicious, yet forthright countess, Elizabeth Bathory. She's brought to trial under the devilishly enjoyable authority of Maggie Miller's Judge, and us. Accused of killing and fashionably cutting up multiple female servants, her manor, name and reputation are all on the line. After a tense teaser, audience members must quickly decide who to follow and some might decide for you. I went with my gut of picking one of the remaining servants, who was somehow alive, being most likely to know the real story. And boy was I right.
I was immediately tasked with running to a scene in which sewing pins are used for an entirely different purpose than their intention. Then, I found myself running up to the balcony of the church to dispose a supposedly dead body. This was followed by running to meet the unexpected arrival of Zita (Ebony Chuukwu), the sister of a new servant whose been unable to get in contact with her since she dropped her off. There's A LOT of running and risk involved with the ability to stay with your guide or jump back and forth between the other seventeen character tracks! There's no dead ends to be found here. Every corner you turn or door you dare to open, there's no telling what, or who, is on the other side. A forbidden affair exposed, a corpse brought back to life or an alliance dissolved, you never know what you'll find.
What makes this evening so successful is the care that's demonstrated in not only attending to the story's details, but its audience. You're allowed to fully partake in the night's mischief whether prompted to reveal a discovery, trick a townsperson, or keep a secret. If you find yourself in a scene outside the church, blankets and umbrellas are generously provided if needed. If somehow you're not enjoying yourself, you have a hand in changing the narrative you're watching. There's also a nice balance of scenes separated by tracks and where the audience is reassembled back together. With scarily good fight choreography (Donahue) and stylized stakes in a perfect setting, this production accomplishes the campiness of a haunted house while placing a pressing mission onto its audience. Cast that verdict carefully (it was nearly split the night I attended), and enjoy having a show to compare notes with others on the journey home.
Sugar in Our Wounds
Sugar in Our Wounds is a play that beautifully, blisteringly folds deeper and deeper into itself until you can't bear it anymore. Playing at The Den, this Civil War family drama teases and temporarily fulfills many desires in a time of devastating turmoil. Written by Donja R. Love in his trilogy of exploring black love across history, director Mikael Burke taps into what makes his dialogue sing; letting its solemness and patience gently reveal itself down to its bright, but bitter core.
James (Michael Turrentine), a young slave, finds a way to claim his personal liberties when his ultimate freedom has been taken from him. He teaches himself how to read, contacts his ancestors through a mystical, transfixed tree with a deeply rooted, dark past and discovers a romance sweet as sunshine with newcomer, Henry (Londen Shannon). The insightful, guiding light of Aunt Mama (Renee Lockett) illuminates over them both including Mattie (Ashley Crowe), who struggles in her options as a trapped, young, black woman. Grainne Ortlieb plays an unnerving, wicked performance as Isabel, the master's daughter, treating the group at her best like dolls, and worst like animals. Her dominance gains swagger from stunning costumes by Madeleine Rose Byrne, notably having a different, grand outfit each scene. Eric Watkins (lighting design) and Joy Ahn (scenic design) provide an awestruck landscape for moments of connection and catastrophe, each element equally vital to this production's sustenance.
While the play divides time on this family, Turrentine is the heart of the show. His glowing performance is transformative, carrying all the hope in the world in his smile, the fire of freedom in his eyes, and the universal power of love in his body that blossoms with Henry’s. Their love story lends itself as a guide post to cling onto when the character's present realities feel finite and the future seems like it will forget about them. There's a song featured in season one of Pose that I couldn't help but be reminded me of when watching this couple, noting the shared thread of sacrifice and sorrow associated with the romantic relationships of gay men. "Love is the Message" when thinking of this play, and it makes the sugar in our wounds a little sweeter.
I Am Going to Die Alone and I Am Not Afraid
Deceptive, punk rock, and in your face are the words that come to mind when experiencing Prop Thtr's I Am Going to Die Alone and I Am Not Afraid. This "furious history of the Holocaust" packs a punch directed glowingly by Anna Gelman and crafted by their tightly bonded, talented ensemble. Seventy minutes does more than scratch the surface of the memories, grief, and legacy of a WWII ridden world with the lingering effects of Nazism seeping over into our lives today. With all the sentimentality and sincerity of the Goonies gang, six actors grasp at scraps of hope and freedom toward a reckoning that is well within their reach.
Breaking theatrical conventions and shattering expectations, the ensemble crafts a weighty, tightly packed timeline where every moment offers a thrill. There are several threads to pick up on from a vaudeville act where actors go missing as the show goes on, a proud, eighteen-year-old homosexual finds first love and quickly must save their life, and a comprehensive, step by step guide on genocide. Poetic phrases and mindblowing metaphors catch you off guard digging up aching truths. "His breath was warm...like the Earth,” murmurs our newfound lover in monologues that produce humor and humbleness. This turns on the flip of a dime with moments like a dead in the eyes, grinning Hitler tap dancing to Judy Garland's shameless provoking standard, "I Don't Care".
Pictured above: (Left) Zoe Savransky and Lyle Sauer, (Middle) Lyle Sauer, Sarah Gionvannetti, Sonia Goldberg, Isabel Thompson, Ariana Silvan-Grau and Zoe Savransky and (Right) Ariana Silvan-Grau in Prop Thtr’s 'I Am Going to Die Alone and I Am Not Afraid'. Photos by Anna Gelman.
There's a spectrum of sensations experienced, often back to back, but much like the characters we can't escape the underlying sense of fear in these actions. The victories are glorious, but temporary. A mother is able to reconnect with her son whom she was separated from and two lovers share one last devastating dance. The group impressively blow up a crematorium in one of the camps, two sisters plot an escape through a tunnel, and perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the evening comes when the ensemble are lined up, being led to a gas chamber. They list out last thoughts about lovers and literature; one by one defiantly stepping out of line only to retreat back, accepting their fates. Even death on their own terms has been taken from them.
I Am Going to Die... is far from escapism, and instead offers a harshly delivered mandate of how history repeats itself. In step four of the genocide manual, one of the ensemble members identifies descriptors of a dictator with an ability to make you feel charmed, affirmed, and most pointedly, hate the things you hate. This stabbing reality couldn't be more spot on in the personal relationships we seek out, let alone the current administration we live under. The material is so moving that audience members often snap, cry, and at one point are asked by the actors to close thier eyes to enhance their experience.
Across performance and production, the two work in tandem to make this a bone chilling experience. Music by Alec Phan offers a channel to unleash a collective rage. Alyssa Mohn’s scenic design touchingly drapes packed clotheslines that extend into the theatre over the audience. The use of fabric in lieu of metal for an electric fence is particularly breathtaking. Zoe Benditt‘s dramaturgical presence feels stitched into the seams of this play, especially with their powerful lobby display. Overall, it’s one of the strongest, if not the strongest performance I’ve seen at Prop Thtr to date. Take a closer eye to appreciate all these elements and remember this sage advice: “Keep screaming.”
Stay on the Line
Pictured above and below: Whitney LaMora, Nikki Mars and Emily Monteagudo Crohn in The Martin's 'Stay on the Line'. Photos by Nicole Bitonti.
Stay on the Line isn't just the title of The Martin's latest production, but a command for audiences to follow. Led into a contained chamber of chaos, you're invited into a dreamy waiting room with a luminary alarm clock, flickering lights in hues of reds and blues, and an old fashioned, dial telephone reserved in the corner. Event design by Ben Chlapek makeshifts the space to feel like heaven, hell, or an unsettling purgatory that could transform into either at any moment.
In only twenty minutes, Whitney LaMora, Nikki Mars, and Emily Monteagudo Crohn guide you through two of nine potential storylines. Asked to fill out a questionnaire beforehand, each experience is customized to the audience member. This leads to the rarity of an one person immersive production, meaning no two shows are alike, even if repeating a storyline. Taking action in the story is crucial to making this performance entertaining for both parties involved. A changing theme and commitment to this convention makes for a unique experience and The Martin having an understandably stellar record in selling out this event every year.
When I attended, I was treated to first exploring this heavenly hellscape. I sanitized my hands, popped some Skittles, and discovered a new calling as a telemarketer as I incessantly answered the phone. Responses on the other line varied from ominous cries for help, soothing vocals and wind chimes, and the eeriest of all, a dial tone. Live vocals and drumming were tucked away behind a curtain I was forbidden to access accelerating in volume and intensity as I approached. This sound matched with a frenzied light display gave off the impression this could be the end of days, but I was oddly accepting of my fictional fate.
After this portion of the evening, I was greeted by Mars who walked me through a physical and mental checkup before getting me situated for a Q&A. It felt like a therapy session with Mars quickly, but pointedly quizzing me on questions only I could answer. This included asking me about the best day of my life, if we need to change the rules or institutions in power, and if humanity is lost. When being asked my thoughts so frankly, I was charged with a sense of importance and as answers flowed out of my mouth, I didn't recognize this confident, thoughtful woman, strong in her beliefs and herself. The one question that stuck with me most was when Mars asked plainly, "Are you happy?", which given our limited time together and no room to second guess, I surprising myself answered, "Yes."
In this initially sinister, but over time oddly deep conversation, I was forced to contemplate what I love and fear. This can seem simple, but I didn't realize how much of a tuneup I needed in examining what my priorities are and how to use that information in achieving happiness. It was a helpful exercise in marrying the past with the present, and how we can acknowledge the lessons we've learned without letting them limit our progress. I was reminded how we can grow from painful memories and victories in different ways. When simulated to imagine what kind of person you are at the end of your life, it can make you proud of all you accomplished. As you're liberated from this fantasy, it sets in what you're capable of achieving with the time you have left. Stay on the Line reminds us to use fear as a motivation to do more of what we love, and not as an excuse to neglect our desires.