August: Osage County and the Brother/Sister Plays aside, Steppenwolf Theatre's best programming moves of the last several years have had more to do with astute marketing and curating than the ensemble art that made it famous. The annual First Look Repertory of New Work neatly combines script and audience development by giving theatergoers the chance to have a say in the workshopping of new scripts. And Garage Rep—running now in Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre—helps the 35-year-old institution hook into the energy of some of Chicago's coolest young theater companies by hosting their latest shows. In each case, Our Lady of Halsted Street does well by doing good, enhancing itself as it fosters others.
This year's Garage Rep features three local troupes doing plays that are supposed to reflect Steppenwolf's theme for the season—"public/private self." I guess I can see how they do that, if I try. But what the productions by Sideshow Theatre, UrbanTheater, and Strange Tree Group really share is a taste for highly stylized theatrical storytelling. These three shows run the gamut from flamboyance to deep earnestness, advanced tech to simple sleights of hand, but none of them demonstrates the least interest in naturalism.
By far the splashiest of the trio is Sideshow's Heddatron. Feminist satire in the form of a big, fat goof, Elizabeth Meriwether's play tells the tale of Jane Gordon, a Michigan housewife with a nice-enough husband named Rick, a precocious daughter called Nugget, a bun in the oven, and deep, deep, deep ennui. She's kidnapped by a pair of robots who've attained minds—and, apparently, obsessions—of their own. Spiriting her off to an Ecuadoran grotto that looks like a computer circuit board decorated for Christmas, the robots demand that she read the title role of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler aloud. (When she misses a cue, a booming mechanical voice goes, "Say your line! Say your line!") Meanwhile, her family has formed a posse to get her back.
But that's nowhere near the end of it. Ibsen himself shows up as an anal-retentive, asexual flake who gets his best ideas while playing with dolls and fairly pushes his pissed off, frustrated wife into the arms of that cad August Strindberg. Before it's all over, everyone gets together for a time-wrinkling rendition of "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
The pieces don't fit. The pacing is hurry-up-and-wait clunky. The jokes are all over the place. And Meriwether's Jane/Hedda/ robot equation ("built just to be used by someone else") is rough and probably passe. But the overall effect is hilarious. A big part of Heddatron's draw is supposed to be the onstage presence of robotic mechanisms operated by remote control. They are nice: I liked the literal abs of steel hung on one of them, the zippy vacuum cleaner and TV, the R2-D2/C-3PO dynamic between the kidnappers. Still, I wouldn't have felt I was missing anything if they'd been played by actors in cardboard boxes painted silver.
José Rivera's Sonnets for an Old Century comprises 18 monologues spoken by people who've just died and been led to some kind of celestial anteroom by an angel with an odd Michael Jackson/A Clockwork Orange combo look going on. The conceit is that they've all got something to get off their chests before they can continue on their posthumous journey, so, one by one, they unload.
There are a few lovely moments in this UrbanTheater piece directed by Madrid St. Angelo. A woman keeps trying to finesse her turn, throwing out bits of trivial information, only to be forced to start again until she gets it right. A fool complains that the old sitcom Happy Days was his idea. But the overwhelming majority of the speeches have an earnest, elegiac sameness to them that grows more and more tedious as you realize that they're not going anywhere in particular: they just are, one after another.
Strange Tree's The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen is the most graceful, sustained, and completely realized Garage Rep entry. It's also the one that comes closest to actually exploring Steppenwolf's public/private self theme.
Emily Schwartz's play is a mock period melodrama about a trusting 19th-century homeopath married to a nasty, narcissistic would-be socialite—she's called Cora but has any number of aliases—who makes his life hell. Once he finds true love with his secretary, Doctor Crippen decides to knock Cora off.
The trick to the piece is that Crippen is played by three actors representing his public, private, and fantasy selves—superego, ego, and id. As embodied by Stuart Ritter, Scott Cupper, and Matt Holzfeind, the trick is carried through nicely. Their Crippens are at once distinct and wonderfully coherent. Also, very funny.
The magic of the piece is that it handles not only the divided persona but a hundred other little tropes and bits of side business with a paradoxical mix of good-humored ease and utter seriousness. Jimmy McDermott's cast is able to play the joke and the drama, simply and elegantly.