The Promise/Beirut | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Promise/Beirut 

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THE PROMISE

DuckWorks Productions
at the Blue Rider Theatre

One of the great strengths of theater, too often overlooked in this age of slice-of-life realism, is that it can show us lives more intense and passionate than we fainthearted and practical folks dare live. Consider Jose Rivera's magical realist play The Promise.

Inspired by S. Ansky's popular Yiddish play The Dybbuk, about a woman possessed by the spirit of her dead lover, Rivera transforms this cautionary tale about the dangers of meddling in the black arts (specifically the cabala) into a rich, resonant modern-day fairy tale about a young Latina trying to break free of her jealous, controlling, hate-filled father.

In telling his story, Rivera steals a page from novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's bag of tricks, creating a living, breathing fictional world (set in working-class suburban Long Island) made up of equal parts miracle and mundanity, a world where spells are real and enchantment is a daily danger but where the poor are still forced to work at stifling factory jobs and live on the edge of (perhaps toxic) public landfills. Like Marquez's better novels, Rivera's play is all the richer because it contains both the empirical truth of realism and the evocative metaphors of fantasy. Whether you see Lilia Guzman as a woman possessed by the soul of her dead lover or as an anguished anorexic trying to control her chaotic feelings, Rivera's tale is equally spellbinding.

Director Jeremy Wechsler does a great job of seamlessly melding the literal and figurative sides of The Promise, thanks in no small part to Walter Tabayoyong's unobtrusive choreography (used to signify the play's several conjuring sequences) and to the fact that Wechsler's cast reacts to every surreal twist in Rivera's story as if these things happen to everyone all the time.

Though the performances vary widely, from fine to barely passable, the main roles are filled by actors who clearly know what they're doing. GiGi New really shines as Lilia, proving herself equally adept at playing an assertive woman, an adolescent in love (she smiles, and there is no doubt her heart belongs to Carmelo), and a poor unfortunate whose body is inhabited by two souls at once, one male and one female. Michael Cimino is perfectly cast as Lilia's bitter father, Pedro, a man so eaten up with anger at the world that even his garden (designed by Ann Stringer) looks like a place for damned souls.

Andrew Hawkes plays Lilia's first, true, and only love Carmelo well, but he stumbles later on when he returns as Lilia's nerdy loser of a suitor, Hiberto, and ends up turning in the sort of over-the-top performance that would make Jerry Lewis cringe. Jerry Gordon has the opposite problem: he so underplays Carmelo's father that he speaks in the same pained monotone whether he's angry, hurt, or dispensing a bit of otherworldly wisdom.

Happily, Rivera's well-written, well-structured play provides a strong foundation that easily absorbs such minor flaws and keeps the production ticking.

BEIRUT

Chicago Stage
at Angel Island

Would that Alan Bowne's one-act Beirut were similarly strong. Sadly, there is nothing that this dedicated, energetic, well-meaning cast of three young actors can do to make the play seem deeper, more carefully considered, and less hysterical and trendy (the play even contains a jab at the Band-Aid charity song "We Are the World").

Written in the mid-80s, when AIDS hysteria was at its height and conservatives like William F. Buckley fanned the flames by suggesting that everyone who tested positive for HIV be tattooed and quarantined, Beirut is set in some not-so-distant dark future when all "positives" infected with an unnamed AIDS-like virus are forced to live in a cordoned-off section of Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Bowne's story, such as it is, concerns a "positive" named Torch living in squalor in a basement who is one day visited by a woman he knows, a "negative" named Blue. She yearns for him so strongly that she's willing to risk infection for the chance to make love to him. For the better part of the play they discuss the wisdom of this, are interrupted once by a bullying member of the "lesion guard," and then in the end decide--well, I don't want to give the ending away.

Todd Frampton and Susan Frampton, who deliver the sort of committed real-to-the-bones performances many actors would kill for, do all they can to make this talky play work. They even perform a bit of pelvis-grinding foreplay so graphic that the rather hip-looking woman next to me gasped "Oh my God!" (I hope these Framptons are not siblings.) Ultimately, however, this hour-long work overstays its welcome by about a quarter hour.

Murky and contradictory, Beirut not only seems to advocate celibacy and promiscuity at once, it's also afflicted with the sort of glib nihilism I associate with bad heavy metal. But the real problem with this play is that for all the imaginative energy Bowne has spent creating his apocalyptic vision of life during the sex plague--a hell on earth only Pat Buchanan could love, complete with bands of National Guardsmen dispensing draconian justice like storm troopers--the only real dramatic problem Bowne seems interested in exploring is "Will Torch and Blue sleep together?" And that sort of question won't sustain even an hour-long one-act.

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