The House Theatre of Chicago artistic director Nate Allen introduces the world premiere of Diamond Dogs, an adaptation of a short story by Alastair Reynolds, by noting that it is “hard sci-fi” and a departure from the optimism usually implicit in House Theatre shows. Since a significant plot point of Diamond Dogs is people undergoing medical transformation into floating diamonds, I question how “hard” the science in this fiction actually is, but I think it is fair to say that the term signals that the story caters to a different set of expectations and interests than people usually expect from other genres. The House has also performed enough tragedies recently, including an adaptation of The Bacchae, that the optimism Allen refers to is meant in the sense that people have significant enough good qualities for their self-destruction to elicit sorrow. Diamond Dogs doesn’t really do that. Like Moby Dick, one of the stories best known for a pessimistic view of peoples’ graces to flaws ratio, Diamond Dogs depicts people slowly killing themselves in pursuit of an idiotic objective, but it depicts them in a manner which is far more frustrating.
The adaptors, called Althos Low (a group also known as Shanghai Low Theatricals led by Steve Pickering) are working from one of sixteen stories within Reynolds’s Revelation Space series. The backstory is long and complicated, but basically, hundreds of years from now, humans have colonized space, developed cybernetic enhancements to our bodies and intelligence, and can skip over the boring centuries traveling in between stars by freezing and unfreezing ourselves. Our viewpoint character, Richard Swift (John Henry Roberts), is still youthful at one hundred and seventy-two years old, and in mourning for his parents and dozens of other people who died in an experiment meant to achieve immortality. It seems that effective immortality has been achieved through other means anyway, but Swift refuses to criticize the dead, and while honoring them, is surprised to find their leader, his boyhood friend Roland Childe (Chris Hainsworth), still very much alive. Childe claims he has found the key to technology which could lead to resurrection, and asks Swift to join his exploration team.
Though no living aliens have been encountered thus far, traces of their long-dead civilizations have been found, and Childe is particularly interested in a structure he has named Blood Spire on a desolate planet he calls Golgotha. The Blood Spire is a floating spiral tower with a pile of corpses at its base. Childe claims to have spoken with a survivor who said that to climb within the tower, explorers must answer increasingly difficult mathematical questions as they move from room to room. A wrong answer results in mutilation, and repeated failures in death. Also, the Blood Spire’s AI is advanced enough to be considered sentient. The motley crew Childe has assembled consists of Swift, Swift’s ex-wife, Celestine (Katherine Keberlein), who has cybernetic implants to make her a math whiz and whom Swift has had suppressed in his memories, Forqueray (Abu Ansari), a captain, Hirz (Elana Elyce), a mercenary hacker, and Dr. Trintignant (Joey Steakley), a fugitive who kidnapped and murdered dozens of people while developing new cybernetics. They do not get along and their attempts to climb the tower do not go very well.
It takes until the beginning of the second act for somebody to point out that they do not have the slightest reason to believe that the tower is in any way related to their supposed objective, and even longer for someone to point out that there is no reason to believe the tower would ever allow them to win. However, it is also made clear early on that none of their objections matter. While Captain Ahab was a charismatic figure who inspired his men to believe in him and made them feel valued, Childe is a bully who immediately resorts to physical intimidation and openly delights in humiliating his crew and watching them quaver in terror of Blood Spire’s traps. But he’s only one man, and what really keeps the other five returning to the tower again and again is ego and spite. I was reminded while watching Diamond Dogs of a game my family played last Christmas which all of us hated, but which went on for hours because none of us would quit first or allow ourselves to lose. Diamond Dogs is about people who are supposedly very intelligent and truly loathe each other doing something with serious consequences for losing, but not winning.
As for the staging, it’s technically brilliant, but in service of a story which is claustrophobic and cerebral. Lee Keenan has supplied all sorts of special lights to create the Blood Spire environment, and several of these are integrated into Izumi Inaba’s very cool space costumes. Inaba and sound designer Sarah Espinoza also had the foresight to put microphones into the masks and helmets. Mary Robinette Kowal’s puppets are also visually impressive, and I gather that they are considerably more graceful and ghostly than what is described of the titular diamond dogs in Reynolds’s text. But Allen’s direction can’t avoid the Sisyphean nature of the plot and theme, so the visual elements’ power wears thin after not very long.
The six actors also do a fine job with broadly written characters. Steakley, in particular, has mastered an odd movement vocabulary, which he relies on because Dr. Trintignant always wears a mask and may not even have a face. Roberts is also a stand-out in a role which requires the audience to become increasingly disillusioned with his character. For fans of the Revelation Space series, Diamond Dogs is a must-see, and The House’s production values are used here in service of an interesting aesthetic rarely seen elsewhere. But the aggravating nature of the story makes it important for anybody who is not a hard sci-fi fan to know what they are getting into beforehand. Certain plot points late in the play which seemed too convenient or didn’t make sense made me even more frustrated. Diamond Dogs has its strong points, but is firmly situated within its niche.
Diamond Dogs is performed in the upstairs at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St, Chicago, Illinois. Running time is two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $30-35; to order, visit thehousetheatre.com or call 773-769-3832.
Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm through March 5.
It’s the beginning of a puppet-laden season in theatre this fall. Victory Gardens will be performing Hand to God, the story of a boy whose hand puppet is possessed by the devil, and later in the season, Writers Theatre will produce The Hunter and the Bear, their latest collaboration with Pigpen Theatre Company, which is expected to include the use of shadow puppets as storytelling devices. But first, The House Theatre of Chicago is now presenting their newest original work, A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch, a show which explores a fictionalized origin for England’s popular family annihilating marionette, and the minds of the people who came up with him. Featuring the best products of The House’s beloved design team, Mister Punch is a technical marvel, though the script by Kara Davidson is slow to start.
The earliest record of Punch and Judy shows comes from the seventeenth century, and the show is set slightly after that. Punch’s illegal immigrant Italian creator, Pietro Bologna (Adrian Danzig), ekes out an existence while dodging the authorities, as does the thief and street urchin, Charlotte (Sarah Cartwright). Fate brings them together, and Pietro decides he could use her as a bottler, the assistant who introduces shows and collects money. Disguised as a boy named Charlie, Charlotte is initially awful, but the puppets capture her imagination. They have inner life, Pietro tells her, though he guards his creations jealously, and insists that mass murder is the only acceptable ending for Mr. Punch’s stories. When Charlotte learns that Pietro visits a prostitute, Polly (Echaka Agba), whom he regards more as a mistress, she hopes that a softer side of her master might manifest through the puppets if she could only capture some of that affection in the play. But circumstances, and Pietro’s true disposition, are not so kind.
Lee Keenan’s scenic design is similar to the circus theme used in The House’s recently remounted Death and Harry Houdini, only this time, commedia dell’arte masks and puppet pieces dangle from the rafters. John Fournier’s original music contains several unnerving melodies, though naturally, few can compare with the props designed by Eleanor Kahn or with the puppets themselves, created by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. The leering grins of Punch, the crocodile, and the other denizens of his world look even more grotesque in the masks worn by the live actors (costumes by Izumi Inaba). Punch, played by Johnny Arena, appears in the flesh during scenes in which his puppeteers are acting him out, as do Judy (Carolyn Hoerdemann), his much-abused acquaintance, Joey (Joey Steakley), and his other victims. Though The House prides itself on innovative storytelling, few scenes in the show could be more highly theatricalized than these.
Or, at least, that will probably be the case after a few more runs. Though puppetry is often clumsy, more than was optimal seemed to be going wrong at opening, which distorted the pace of the comedy and caused some hesitancy among the actors during fight scenes. This has happened at other House shows, which were able to recover gracefully, but his time, the script was unfocused in the first act to the point where the performers didn’t have much to return to. In the second act, Davidson found her thread, and director Shade Murray was able to put together a story that was as alarming as it was open-ended. But in the first act, precious time was lost to self-indulgent interludes such as the main antagonist doing an impression of House artistic director Nathan Allen.
As annoying as some of the missed opportunities were, what happens in the second act more than redeems the show. We see Danzig’s Pietro as he truly is—not nearly as monstrous as his creation, but enough like him to confuse and disquiet the girl who can’t help seeing him as a friend. Cartwright’s performance takes over near the end, as with increasing desperation she attempts to turn the world of “cathartic violence” Pietro has devised into something kinder and more hopeful. Ironically, the scene which the opening night audience reacted the most viscerally to was one of the few instances of Pietro doing something truly altruistic, due to its graphic nature. The House strongly advises that this show is for teens, at the youngest. But for people able to enjoy and critique the Punch and Judy aesthetic, this show comes recommended.
A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch is being performed at the Chopin Theatre through October 23. Tickets are $30-35; for more information, visit TheHouseTheatre.com. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.
The New Colony has staked a claim in the Chicago and U.S. theatre scene. Creating original, devised, ensemble-based productions, the nomadic storefront theatre has made a splash on the local and national scene. In just sixth short years, their productions have appeared across the country - in Steppenwolf's Garage, the New York International Fringe Festival, and Off-Broadway. The secret ingredient? Lesbians. Five of them. And a quiche.
Originally part of their 2011 season, "5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche" is a clever romp set in 1956 exploring the hysteria of the Cold War, American feminism, and the delicate art of making a quiche. It also put The New Colony on the national map. For those who missed it, a second, reheated version is occurring in Wicker Park's Chopin Theatre. The ladies of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein incite you to their annual quiche breakfast. When you enter, you'll get a nametag – my male date was "Patty," I was "Bernice" - and the 75-minute presentation with a plot twist commences. The women recount the history of their society, the importance of the egg – both for quiche and biology – and tap into their inner desires when the stakes are raised to nuclear proportions.
The talented ensemble - Caitlin Chuckta, Megan Johns, Thea Lux, Rachel Farmer, Kate Carson-Groner (the final two, full disclosure, are improv friends of mine) – is mostly the original cast who developed the characters, penned into an official script on sale in the lobby. The polished comedic romp through gender stereotypes, the politics of friendship and romance, and the absurdity of quiche-love is heightened to farcical extremes, making it a perfect post-brunch outing. Whether you're out or not, you should come out to "5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche."
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