Afterthoughts: Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, directed by Joe Jahraus, and produced by Profiles Theatre

UPDATE: On June 8th, 2016 Chicago Reader published an exposé on abuse at Profiles Theatre. The theatre has since closed due to the deserved negative reactions among the Chicago theatre community. The space has recently reopened as a home for Pride Film & Plays. The allegations of decades of abuse taints Darrell Cox's performance in Jerusalem, as well as the artistic choices of Joe Jahraus. Please read the article as a companion piece to this review, it is important. 


Profiles Theatre’s currently running production of Jerusalem has all the sex, drugs, and trailer-raves one can hope for. Directed by Joe Jahraus, the play revolves around Rooster, a charming degenerate who spends his days in a drug and alcohol induced haze and his nights partying and misbehaving with the town’s adolescent population. Rooster spins tall tales about his origin and adventures and is a reluctantly accepted local legend. This doesn’t stop him from being in legal trouble regarding his hovel of debauchery.

The striking elements of the production were the superb scenic design (Thad Hallstein), framing the trash and the trailer with an ornate St. George’s illustration; the fairy-rave style outfits and general disarray of clothing (costume design: AmarA*jk); and, the blood-pumping, glow-stick thrusting, outrageous vignettes of party culture (lighting design: Mike Rathbun, sound design: Brandon Reed).

The ensemble, led by Darrell W. Cox’s disgustingly magnificent Rooster, tackles small town England with a stunning ease. Each character is a small part of the town (a pivotal character itself) and each actor adds a healthy amount of curiosity and intrigue to the village of Flintock.

All of these elements are brought together beautifully by director Joe Jahraus. The play is long but never tedious as the pacing switches between capturing the thrill of a never-ending night of partying and the numbness of the glorified hangover.

Jerusalem runs until April 24th at Profiles Theatre. Recommended.   

Afterthoughts: 2666, adapted and directed by Robert Falls and Seth Bockley, based on the novel by Roberto Bolaño, and produced by The Goodman

It takes a brave soul to see a five and a half hour long production on a weeknight. That was me on Wednesday night. It takes an unparalleled artistic bravado to tackle a sprawling, enigmatic, 900 page novel (1100 in the original Spanish) and adapt it into a compelling and unforgettable night of theatre. That was Robert Falls and Seth Bockley doing just that for The Goodman’s epic production of 2666, based on Roberto Bolaño’s novel. The stage and its inhabitants are transformed throughout the piece with beautiful effects, costumes, and acting, all guided by suburb direction. Marathon theatre is an increasingly popular choice in Chicago and it runs the risk of just not being good enough to sit and not cough for five or more hours. The Goodman and its lucky audiences are not going to run that risk.

The action of the play takes place in Europe and Mexico throughout the 20th century as a group of 1990s professors attempt to track down the elusive author that they have dedicated their lives studying. Meanwhile, in Mexico, young women are being murdered and a scholar is being haunted by his father’s voice. Later, but earlier in the play’s timeline, the elusive author’s life is presented in the style of a strange Prussian fairy tale (it looks as strange as it sounds). All of these stories (and the many branching stories) converge and diverge over the course of five and a half hours. The final effect is a connection to both the human characters, the strange worlds, and the voice of Bolaño, echoing posthumously through the piece.

Of particular note was Walt Spangler’s morphing and evolving scenic design. The high tech displays (Projection Design: Shawn Sagady) juxtaposed against the low tech gravel strewn across the stage is only one example of how the elements combined to create a magical sense of suspense and awe. Additionally, Richard Woodbury and Mikhail Fiksel’s music and sound design were unforgettable and instantly transported the audience into the haunting world of 2666. This was a good thing because the piece has three intermissions.

There was not a weak actor in the ensemble, performing 6 days a week and completely committed to the story and the world. The ensemble never stopped moving as a unit through space and time to express Bolaño’s beautifully frightening world.

Falls and Bockley have directed a production that will be remembered for its bravery and innovation. The use of screens, film, and voiceover seamlessly integrated alongside mime, slow-motion, and direct-address mark this as a successful display of low and high tech theatrical capabilities. I am most interested in what happened offstage, during the pre-production and rehearsal periods. How did this come together? How is it mapped to unfold each night? Or, maybe it I should keep this information as mysterious as Bolaño’s novel.

2666 runs through March 20th. Highly recommended. You will regret missing this theatrical feast. Purchase tickets here.

Afterthoughts: finding gräfenburg, written & directed by Graham Brown, produced by trip

The theatre company trip seeks to “bridge the gap between artist and audience.” Graham Brown, writer and director of the latest trip experience, finding gräfenburg, creates an entanglement of sexual exploration, innocuous flirtation, and office politics in a beautiful gallery space at Hairpin Arts Center, overlooking the bustling intersection of Milwaukee and Diversey.

There is minimal lighting, no central playing space, no seating, and anyone around you could be an actor. This is part of the joy of witnessing this theatrical experience: it feels both familiar and unexpected. This was the feeling of a veteran theatregoer anticipating the unexpected, but being blindsided while waiting.

That is the surface allure of finding gräfenburg. And it works. Ultimately. I will admit having some issues with the first phase of the piece, in which the jump cuts between scenes suffered from partial realized dramaturgy, akin to a poorly conceived long-form improvisation. Space and time were marginalized by relationship and wit. The wide open ground plan of the gallery did not help. Once the play shifted into longer, more focused scenes, I enjoyed the story being told in addition to the marvelous theatrical event I was witnessing.

Sure it is an old trick to hide actors within the audience, but this production blurred that line. What if that actor in the audience was eyeing you the entire time and then began to speak lines? What if there were actors in the audience that never spoke any lines? finding gräfenburg entices one to think like that. This is what succeeds. It’s not just a play. You can go to any theatre in town and sit in a dark room and watch, or, you can go and take a trip. 

Afterthoughts: Really Really by Paul Downs Colaizzo, produced by Interrobang Theatre Project

Theatre leaves you with images and thoughts to be perused again by way of conversation or private meditation. Great theatre adds in leftover feelings that electrify a connectivity to the work, humanity, and a fierce debate within one’s own head space. These feelings are usually described as cathartic or enjoyable. Really Really by Paul Downs Colaizzo and produced by Interrobang Theatre Project was one of the rare productions that throws those feelings into chaos. By the end of the production, one feels betrayed, used, tormented, and equally amazed by the onstage tightrope act. This is a play that needs to be produced on universities across the country to engage in dialogue about the state of sexual assault, obtuseness, and fragility on American campuses.

That was some aloof thoughts about the feelings evoked from the production, now for how it elicited those feelings. What worked? A stellar cast of beautiful and wonderfully talented actors who perpetuated the Chicago ideal that ensemble trumps all. There is no black and white character in this play, everyone exists in a dirty gray. This gray overshadows the characters so that by the end one is questioning every decision made onstage and therefore concluding over and over again where one personally falls on the issue. This cast was maneuvered by superb directing and a smart script that avoided labeling its characters as anything other complex, contradictory, and human.

The final image of the play is a cacophony of visceral theatre. I sat in a foggy state as the play ended. This fogginess was not from lack of understanding but from being astounded that a production ventured into a darkness. The production climaxed, withdrew, and then tossed the audience aside. This is the theatrical language of this production and it evokes a queasy feeling of self-edit during discussion.  

The set was a box. But it was the kind of boxed set that makes designers and directors want to chase a boxed set. This unit set was shared as two separate, believable college apartments. The design captured the uniformity the made-for-students apartment communities existing on the peripheral of universities. Every aspect of this design meshed together.

This script denies a safe side of the argument to fall into. It forces you to confront issues that are not simply she said/he said. This rewards the audience at the end with a night of theatre to be remembered months and years later.

The one small issue I had was the seemingly superfluous scenes in which Haley is direct addressing the audience as the Future Leaders of America. She does so in a less prepared state each time, as the world of the play beings to break down, and the scenes serve as a segue between the apartment scenes. During the production this stood out; however, this jarring effect was later revisited during the brilliant ending. I wonder if these scenes are a necessary hurdle to achieve the dénouement, or if they could be incorporated more into the private world of the play.

I am beyond excited to see what Interrobang Theatre Project produces next. This is a company that is not fretting from its ambitious tagline: Changing Our World One Play at a Time.

Go see their next production. Really.