I went to a play a few days ago. In the Before Times, that would have been like saying “I took a shower.” (I’m still showering regularly. Don’t get it twisted.) Prior to the shutdown last March, like most theater writers, I spent at least three to four nights a week at shows. Then it went down to “zero.” (Have you heard about this thing called “bingeing a TV series?” It’s wild!)
Just to simply sit in the dark with other people watching other people pretend to be other people had a little bit of magic to it after 16 months of impersonating Miss Havisham in pajamas. I thought about Trudy, the unhoused tour guide for the space aliens in Lily Tomlin‘s 1980s solo show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (written by Tomlin’s spouse, Jane Wagner). She takes the aliens to the theater, but they get goose bumps from watching the audience, because they think that’s the real show.
Henchpeople, the new comedy by Ross Compton at Rogers Park’s Theatre Above the Law, may not leave you with intergalactic goose bumps. But if you’re looking for an endearing and goofy way to dip your toes back into the storefront scene (the company’s Jarvis Square venue is one of the smallest in the city), it might fill the bill. (Just be prepared to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination at the box office and wear a mask, per the house rules.)
There’s certainly a whiff of contemporary relevance to a story about a small pod of people trapped in a tiny space, getting on each other’s nerves and wondering when the world is finally going to change for the better. In Compton’s play (directed by TATL artistic director Tony Lawry), the title characters are a semi-clueless duo in thrall to a Villain, bent on destroying a nameless city from a bunker hideout. (Charlotte Lastra and David Hartley‘s set is filled with low-budget retro switches, lights, and panels, giving a delightful Ed Wood-esque effect to the physical environment.)
Oona (Stephanie Stockstill) is a wannabe Mini-Me to Julia Rowley‘s preening Villain, while Jarlath (Travis Shanahan) is a tech nerd. Both have their own reasons for hating the mayor of the town and joining up with the Villain. As is so often the case, the revolutionary becomes the gaslighting tormentor, taunting Oona and Jarlath for their shortcomings and reminding them of their place in the pecking order. “I’M the Voice of the Commoner. I’ll speak for both of us. Understand?” But when the shit is about to hit the fan, the Villain is happy to remain an armchair activist. (Not that I can think of anyone in recent history who stayed behind in a secure location while urging their disciples on to violent insurrection. Heavens no!)
Rowley also plays the Heavy (a rogue general at the head of the rebel army) and the Hero, a smarmy caped crusader (their cape festooned with logos for local businesses such as the R Public House) in cahoots with the status quo. Since all three characters seem like aspects of the same narcissistic persona, the casting makes sense. (On opening night, some of the dialogue in the video feed where we first meet the Heavy was hard to catch, even in the small space, but generally Compton’s sound design and Stina Taylor’s lighting work well at suggesting subterranean depths.)
By contrast, Oona and Jarlath are sincere, if befuddled. When Oona tries to impersonate the suddenly-deceased Villain for an address to the rebel troops, it’s like watching Good Janet try to mimic Bad Janet in The Good Place. (I mentioned bingeing TV shows, right?) It’s obvious that, while she’s operating from a place of genuine pain brought on by a childhood of neglect, she’s still got the empathy chip the solipsistic Villain/Heavy/Hero triumvirate lacks.
Lawry’s staging lets the cast show off some admirable physical comedy chops, and Compton’s script has several epigrammatic nuggets of wisdom, including the so-true-it-hurts line “There’s nothing more dangerous than a rich person with hurt feelings.” Stockstill and Shanahan win us over as Oona and Jarlath figure out that the real path to freedom and release from the past comes from learning to trust themselves and each other, not grandiose authority figures whose solution is to burn it all down, consequences be damned.
And I have to say that hearing the sounds of other people around me laughing at silly sight gags and well-timed double takes was tonic for the soul. As the aliens tell Tomlin’s Trudy (inspired by her attempts to explain the appeal of Andy Warhol), “The play was soup. The audience, art.” Henchpeople isn’t a full-meal kind of play, but it’s a nifty amuse-bouche as the banquet of live performance gears up in theatrical kitchens across the city. v