Ironmistress/Spike Heels | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Ironmistress/Spike Heels 

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Ironmistress

Halcyone Productions
at Heartland Studio Theatre

It's one of those things you don't even know is missing until you find it. But when you do, you let out a prayer of thanks. "Yes!" you want to exclaim. "This is what's needed." I walked into the Heartland Studio Theatre to see Halycone Productions' Ironmistress, sat down, and looked around. And there it was. That missing thing. It oozed out of Cheryl Anne Levin's gorgeous set, Glenn Swan's haunting sound design, even the program. Integrity. Theatrical integrity.

I wanted to go backstage immediately after the performance and thank the whole lot of them. Here was a new theater company that obviously cared about its audience: a novel concept. I had honestly become so accustomed to companies that care only about their own "vital messages" that I'd forgotten that my pleasure as an audience member was important.

This production is definitely pleasurable, in part because it's honest. I'm not even that keen on the Ironmistress script, and this still qualifies as the most satisfying theater experience of 1994 for me. Ironmistress, a rather odd one-act, offers an impressionistic portrait of a real figure from the 19th century. Martha Darby is a middle-aged, upper-class British woman who owns and operates a steel mill circa 1840. Given her position, she and her daughter Little Cog are removed from the mainstream of English society: their passions are ignited more by red-hot steel than by needlepoint. They also share bravado, a lust for power, and vibrant imaginations, as we see when the two of them amuse themselves throughout a single night with games and stories. But their imaginations and memories often enflame their emotions, which flare up only to be cooled by a sobering dose of reality, the shadowy frame around this action established by British playwright April De Angelis. The sobering reality is that Little Cog is to be married the next day to a wealthy man, and she is ill equipped to live in his world. She would rather study mathematics, make machines, and run the furnaces--but she can't.

Her situation could easily be interpreted as tragic, but director Christine Hartman simply presents the story as straightforwardly as possible and lets the audience come to their own conclusions: her quest for honesty is at the heart of this production's integrity. Halcyone Productions makes no bones about being a feminist theater group, but unlike many politically motivated ensembles, this one graciously refrains from telling us what to think. Instead, they go all out to give us something to think about.

Every element of this production is calculated to make Martha and Little Cog's world a real place. Lou Bird's costumes firmly ground the fantastical action in 19th-century England, and dramaturge Julie Massey's time line in the program places 19th-century England in the context of the rest of the world. Levin's set captures the allure and power of Britain's burgeoning industrial revolution, while hinting at the verdant countryside that seems about to be wasted. And Christy Jones's effective lighting subtly changes to underline the lurid side of Martha and Little Cog's memories and fantasies, their raw energy.

This play does have some flaws. De Angelis's ending is rather weak, and Hartman has done little to strengthen it. But Jennifer Yeo as Martha and Tina Fey as Little Cog are both captivatingly honest. They're not icons or heroines. They're real women, flesh and blood, and interesting as hell to watch.

Spike Heels

Resistance Theatre
at the Eclipse Theatre Company

If you want to see what happens when people stage a play just because it's on a politically hot topic, go see the Resistance Theatre's production of Spike Heels. On second thought, don't go. You already know about sexual harassment. And although New York playwright Theresa Rebeck tries to give this tired subject a clever twist, the play is so poorly written, ineptly directed, and painfully performed it communicates nothing.

This is Rebeck's (and director Steve Guichelaar's) clever twist: Spike Heels is about love among the 20-somethings. Like those classic movies Reality Bites and Singles, it tries desperately to give a voice to people who have deliberately cut out their larynxes--and ends up sounding hollow and lifeless. Try these lines at home with your friends. He: "Are you OK?" She: "Yes. No. I don't know." He: "What happened at the office?"

What happened? Andrew's best friend--Georgie's boss--threatened to rape her. So Georgie threw a pencil at him and walked out. The play opens with her screaming and pounding on the door of her neighbor Andrew. And unfortunately Melissa Landis as Georgie never stops yelling through the whole play. On the other hand, Richard Gosse as Andrew--who fancies himself Georgie's mentor, in the style of Henry Higgins--is dull as a doorknob. It's a lethal combination.

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