Chicago Dramatists Workshop


Redmoon Theater

at Link’s Hall

Showcases, especially of untested material, can be deadly. Such evenings typically degenerate into disjointed and frustrating affairs–half-formed plays separated by seemingly endless scene changes hobble clumsily along, making even less sense when placed next to each other.

Luckily, the people at Chicago Dramatists Workshop possess not only skill and intelligence but a great love for the theater. Each of the five short plays in “Playwrights for the ’90s” is smartly paced, efficiently staged, and passionately acted. And someone made a great effort to see that all five pieces flow seamlessly together: scene changes last 15 seconds at most. And Chicago Dramatists Workshop takes care not only of its playwrights and performers but of its audience: when was the last time the house manager offered to hang your coat in the box office?

In such capable and caring hands, these five short plays truly come to life. Their strengths as well as weaknesses are readily apparent, providing the playwrights the rare opportunity to succeed and fail in a safe setting.

Joe Urbanik’s God Shed His Grace is perhaps the most mature work, if only because he’s the sharpest of the bunch at creating a scene. The bitingly satirical God Shed His Grace examines the American penchant for disguising ruthless brutality as the drive to be “a winner.” Urbanik uses the gulf war, and specifically the jingoistic, melodramatic way the media covered it, as a backdrop for the viciousness inherent in our sensibility. That idea is most successfully dramatized in the supermom figure, Barbara (Madelyn Spidle), who will stop at nothing to see that her 13-year-old daughter Audrey (Erin Creighton) wins the speech contest; she even kills off Audrey’s classmate’s mother, thereby “demoralizing” and “neutralizing” her daughter’s stiffest competition.

God Shed His Grace covers familiar ground but does so with sincerity, integrity, and great humor. Though some judicious editing would help (particularly of Barbara’s soliloquies, which establish points already well dramatized in preceding scenes), Urbanik successfully avoids preaching. Even Audrey’s final speech, in which she asks the assembled school body whether there was any point to the war at all, remains just this side of saccharine. The play’s strength comes not only from Urbanik’s solid writing and a strong cast spearheaded by Spidle but from Russ Tutterow’s superb direction. Somehow he sets his cast free to be as broad as needed to fill this highly styled farce, yet at the same time reins them in so that the lunacy is clear and, more important, serves the larger purpose of the play.

The most ambitious work is Michael E. Myers’s If Looks Could Kill, which tells the story of a young African American professional (John Spears) who discovers he can kill people who make even the slightest racist comment simply by looking at them. Myers takes a simple story and fractures it, then presents each facet in a different style, from lecture demonstration to cartoon comedy to realistic drama. Ingeniously, he allows these styles to come and go freely–a good strategy for illustrating the complex network of issues affecting race relations in our culture. If Looks Could Kill does nothing to simplify a complicated, emotional topic, yet Robert Teverbaugh’s surefooted direction ensures that the many complications are never muddied.

Dominic Taylor’s play without words, But I Get Benefits, is succinctly described in the press release: “A man works eight hours at the office in eight minutes.” For this anonymous office worker, played with sublime nonchalance by Robert Bundy, the office is a place of fear and boredom. Upon entering he’s summarily sucked in by his desk, where he sits and thinks up delightful ways to avoid any activity that even hints at work. Director John Swanbeck and Bundy simply delight in Taylor’s work, making every moment count and giving even the cheapest physical shtick a refreshing humor.

The other two pieces are both well written but seem more akin to character studies than fully realized plays. In Carolyn Nelson’s The Gift, a curiously childlike woman (Lavonne Byers) apparently witnesses her own funeral, reliving the “high points” of her life. Each character from her past gives her one significant object, so that by the end she’s a reliquary unto herself. It’s a lovely idea but needs more fleshing out. In Dan Conway’s Rubdown a married man (James S. Hallett) confronts his own fear of intimacy by talking to a prostitute (Amanda Sullivan) he’s hired for an hour, an unfortunate playing out of a male fantasy I find distasteful. The woman acts simply as a sounding board for the man–she has no ability to take action, be changed, or even have a point of view. But both Sullivan and Hallett, to their enormous credit, give as much humanity to the piece as it will support.

None of the works in “Playwrights for the ’90s” is great; all need a few more rewrites (of course, this is assumed in mounting a showcase). But creating original plays is so difficult that Chicago artists are fortunate to have Chicago Dramatists Workshop. Perhaps most impressive about this evening is that these talented actors are enormously generous in their treatment of these fledgling scripts. Each performer without exception commits fully to his or her role, seeming to take a sincere personal stake in it. Of particular note are Madelyn Spidle and Jason Wells, especially in God Shed His Grace, both of whom are effortlessly brilliant in a range of diverse roles.

It’s curious to see theater artists mount productions without the fundamental skills necessary to execute them. And it’s a phenomenon peculiar to the theater. A musician wouldn’t invite an audience to a recital of Beethoven sonatas without first knowing how to play the piano. Yet strangely Blair Thomas, in his one-man puppet performance The Suitcase, the Apartment and the Refrigerator, attempts to tell a story with marionettes without knowing how to work his puppets or tell his story.

The piece revolves around five intriguingly named characters–the Woman With the Padlock on Her Heart, the Man Who Tried to Buy a Refrigerator, the Man Who Lost a Friend, the Angel Who Drank Coffee, and the Woman Who Gravity Couldn’t Keep Down–and seems to be about rootless people trying to find a home, both literally and figuratively. But Thomas’s halting delivery and the utterly uniform tone of his story, coupled with an inability to imbue his puppets with life, effectively prevent a through line from developing. Like many contemporary performers, Thomas seems to want to create a piece out of ambiguous fragments. That’s an exciting technique in the hands of artists like Mark Roth or Doorika, but here the fragments simply collapse under the weight of their own ambiguity.

It’s a shame, because Thomas has an interesting visual sense that reveals him to be an artist with a certain refinement of sensibility. His cunning little jury-rigged stage, which uses backdoor screens and crisscrossing ladders to form a beautifully junky proscenium, is a treat. Building his set out of piled-up old suitcases, both open and closed, is also a lovely touch.

Perhaps Thomas was simply unprepared–he did keep us waiting 20 minutes for curtain. I’ve read wonderful things about Redmoon’s previous work. Let’s hope this show was simply an aberration.