When Martha Lavey became Steppenwolf Theatre's artistic director almost two decades ago, she invited me to lunch to pick my brains about the fringe theater scene. With so many resources at her disposal, she explained, she felt a duty to share the wealth with the smaller itinerant companies in town. I knew her good intentions were genuine (we spent time together in graduate school, and I'd seen firsthand her commitment to experimental work), but I doubted the demands of an oversize, heavily mortgaged, subscriber-dependent institution would leave her much room for noblesse oblige.
Thankfully, I was wrong. It didn't take long before groups like Redmoon, Curious Theatre Branch, and 500 Clown started showing up on the Steppenwolf stage—albeit sometimes performing on whatever set Steppenwolf had up for its own production. And in 1996, when Cheryl Trykv, one of the under-the-radar stars of the perpetually under-the-radar performance scene, faced insurmountable bills for cancer treatment, Steppenwolf turned over its compound for a huge fund-raising performance featuring the likes of Ira Glass and Liz Phair.
Then, five years ago, Steppenwolf inaugurated Garage Rep, which in effect has institutionalized Lavey's vision. Every spring three up-and-coming groups get the keys to Steppenwolf's roomy Garage Theatre to mount their own shows in front of bigger audiences and more critics than they've likely ever seen before. They even get to perform on their very own sets.
By all accounts Garage Rep has been a success, though too often that success is reduced to one instance: the off-Broadway transfer of Ike Holter's 2012 Garage Rep show Hit the Wall (which gets a Chicago Commercial Collective remount next month). Repeatedly trumpeting that show's commercial viability post-Garage Rep risks turning the series into a backers' audition. And the last thing the Chicago theater scene needs are emerging companies who use an opportunity like Garage Rep to mount surefire crowd-pleasers.
I'd say a better gauge of Garage Rep's success is the willingness of participants to think big and fail. By that standard, this year's lineup is a resounding success.
The least unsuccessful entry this year is Prologue Theatre Company's Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, which is also the least ambitious of the bunch. Unlike the other offerings—New Colony's Rewilding Genius and Walkabout Theater Company's The Wild—it's not an original, company-generated piece but the work of Memphis-based playwright Katori Hall. And it's been around for a while; Northlight gave it a public reading in 2009, and Methuen Drama published it in 2011. It's set in mid-1945 in Miss Mary's Press and Curl, a Memphis beauty parlor occupied by a handful of heartbroken, mouthy, mainly illiterate African-American women, most of whom are waiting for their men to return from the war. Into the mix comes Gladys, a stylish, ambitious writer with a dog-eared Bible and an unspeakable heartache of her own.
Hall's play is huge. Each of the six principal women has a weighty backstory that bears portentously on the present, and the humiliation and terror of unchecked racism always lurks just outside the beauty parlor. Stylistically, Hall draws heavily on the swooning southern romance of midcentury Tennessee Williams—so much so that the play often feels like a dutiful imitation. And while her plot is largely predictable (if you can't spot the nascent lesbian crisis in the first few minutes of the play, you're not looking), she ultimately creates a powerful emotional climax that director TaRon Patton's wholly capable cast render with arresting precision.
The problem is, Hall takes forever to get to that climax. She spends almost her entire first act letting her characters indulge in petty squabbles and sass. To then reach the climax she has to compact so many emotional crises into act two they often strain credulity.
New Colony's ambitious Rewilding Genius fails for precisely the same reason. Playwrights Andrew Hobgood and Megan Johns, working from characters created by cast members, stuff a sprawling Uptown apartment with six edgy, techy, hipster roommates and one edgy, techy, hipster outsider. They hatch a scheme to end Big Pharma's global death grip on life-saving medications by hacking into their databases and releasing their formulas to the world. When things go awry, one roomie's attempt to stave off arrest puts the planet on the short track to nuclear annihilation.
It's a tall order, and like Hall, Hobgood and Johns waste nearly their entire first act letting their characters diddle, discussing geopolitical issues or demonstrating their endearing quirks. But nothing is at stake for any of them until the very end of the act, forcing Hobgood and Johns to send act two into overdrive without due regard for plausibility. Under Hobgood's direction the cast are disarmingly credible even as their story careens off the tracks, and the audacity of the play's vision is both admirable and sobering.
Walkabout Theater's The Wild is a failure of a completely different nature. The ensemble-generated hour-long piece puts Euripides's The Bacchae through the Charles Mee/JoAnn Akalaitis mill—meaning just about anything ironic, anachronistic, or electronic can be tossed in. Here we get lots of tribal-sounding music, a theremin, ecstatic dancing, 50s lounge music, face paint, some sort of voice-distorting machine, wrestling, copious amounts of red fabric, and very, very serious performers. Like most pieces in this genre, it offers some isolated visual delights. But it assiduously avoids getting specific about anything, giving it little power to provoke.