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House Theatre’s Borealis doesn’t quite light up the sky

Bennett Fisher’s play has all the amenities except a well-explored point.

Tony Adler Sep 12, 2018 6:00 AM

Borealis is everything we've come to expect a House Theatre of Chicago show to be: Good-hearted, winsome, fantastical, funny, clever, sweetly indignant, charmingly messy, and just dark enough before the dawn. It adopts the crowd-pleasing idioms established by shows like the ensemble's annual Nutcracker and carried through in last winter's Hatfield & McCoy, which somehow managed to be delightful despite all the carnage it chronicled. But Borealis's energetic House-yness may be its biggest problem. The new play by Bennett Fisher spends so much time being all you expect that it gives short shrift to what it's saying.

Fisher's script introduces us to rambunctious 13-year-old Cozbi (pronounced with a long o, I guess to distinguish her from a certain prominent sex offender), who lives with her grown brother, Absalom, in the tiny central Alaskan village of Minto. Mom and Dad are "gone," we don't know why or how, though the when appears to be a matter of years-long enough, anyway, for the siblings to have developed a joshingly violent way with each other. In the first scene Absalom (the charismatic Desmond Gray) gets ambushed by Tia Pinson's Cozbi as he puts on his snow gear; they assume D & D-style personas (Absalom: "I AM ARMORED IN DRAGON SCALES! POSSESSED WITH THE POWER OF FLIGHT! GIRDED WITH A THOUSAND GRASPING ARMS AND A SWIRLING, SLITHERY TAIL!") and play-brawl. Really hard. With a prodigious amount of scatological talk.

This being the near future—"[s]ooner than you think, according to the stage directions—Fisher assumes that the U.S. government has opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to unrestrained oil drilling. There are thousands of rigs out there in the ANWR, and Absalom works on one of them, doing two-week shifts away from home. Cozbi wants him to quit so they can head for the bayou, where she pictures herself eating real peaches and starting "some shit with an alligator." To her astonishment, he agrees. As he leaves for his shift, Absalom promises to give his notice as soon as he reaches the oil company's massive corporate complex.

Three months later Absalom still hasn't returned. Instead, Cozbi receives a heavily redacted letter from him that sounds to her like a tattered plea for help. And she resolves to answer it. Making the long and trackless journey to the ANWR is only the start of her quest. (To give you an idea just how long and trackless that is in real life: When I tried googling a car route from Minto to the ANWR, the program responded, "Sorry, your search appears to be outside our current coverage area for driving.") The real trek starts when she arrives at the complex, armed only with her ax, her indomitable will, and a mystic codex of corporate-speak titled The Art of the Seven Habits of Lean In and Influence People.

All of the above is vividly imagined, in a gamer's universe sort of way. Cozbi wrests the codex, for instance, from a disfigured hermit named Titus whose weaknesses (loves cigarettes, hates fire) she exploits to her advantage. Her journey toward Absalom is punctuated by confrontations with ascending levels of corporate "asshats," each of which has to be fought through or finessed in the classic manner—and each of which gets its own eccentric look and powers, thanks to director Monty Cole and costume designer Izumi Inaba. Borealis features plenty of whimsically differentiated adversaries, along with some surprising secret weapons. And, of course, it manifests every one of those famous House virtues.

Still, the point of the two-hour odyssey remains murky, if not for Cozbi then for me. Fisher goes to great pains to set up what looks like an ecological cautionary tale about an industrial behemoth despoiling the wilderness, and then fails to follow through on it: the pipelines and rigs serve as little more than a field of play for our heroine to negotiate on her way to her goal. Another ostensible subject is the dehumanizing nature of corporate culture, but Fisher doesn't have anything all that remarkable to say about that beyond (a) lampooning its well-known excesses and (b) dressing those excesses up in fantasy-fiction iconography.

The ultimate point, as far as I can tell, is the one arrived at by Cozbi yet never fully mastered by the play: That adults are liars and hypocrites who make the world worse by making peace with it as it is and betraying the imaginative child inside them.

True enough as far as it goes. But inasmuch as the final—really, the only—say on the matter belongs to a 13-year-old, any potential richness is lost. Borealis remains a game with lots of cool bits: a charming mess.   v

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