Theatre in Review

As soon as I saw the warm, rich lighting of a luxurious futuristic bedroom on the Space Ship Destiny lit and decorated by designers Heather Gilbert and Christopher Kriz and the set design by Arnel Sancianco, where the entire action of the play takes place, I thought this is going to be an interesting show. To the right of the set was a spaceship departure board with the names and photos of the passengers, along with their assigned room number, as they were headed to a planet three months away from Earth. The other ships had names like Fortune, Kismet, Prospect and Horizon suggesting that the people leaving earth are doing so willingly and must have enough money to do so. Smooch Medina’s spaceship flight calendar and wall projection also counts down the number of days the passengers have spent locked on this room together, which is a great tension builder as well. 

There are just three characters in the play. One a soldier who is suffering from PTSD from a previous mission in which he witnessed the killing of civilians that haunts him still in a variety of deep emotional ways. He has requested a private room because he cannot sleep well while struggling with his inner demons but somehow an attractive young woman passenger has been placed in the room with him, much to his disapproval. Ed Flynn portrays this sensitive, journal-writing soldier (previously referred to as “Grant”) who is also prone to violent mood changes and outbursts with great feeling and a sweaty intensity that is frightening at times. 

When you consider that he is locked into this “hotel room" for three full months due to a quarantine placed on certain sick members aboard the ship with a petite young female to whom he objects, it’s not difficult to imagine the strain that gradually surmounts. Janelle Villas does a wonderful job of showing the audience her fresh-faced bubbly enthusiasm while hiding a dark past that includes at least one rape, which has also left her in a state of PTSD. 


Co-directed by artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton and guest artist Jessica Thebus, the “Pilgrims” moves along quickly yet with subtle changes in the characters that seem very satisfying and real with a lot of emotional suspense and tension. We the audience wonder if these two characters will ever bond, or even reach their destination safely. We also ponder what will become of their edgy, ever-changing relationship once they are finally released from this artificial and close-quartered isolation into the general population of the new planet.  

The third character is a robot named Jasmine played with a great sense of humor and also an eerie, smiling menace by Brittany Burch. Jasmine has been programmed not only to answer all their questions and provide all their meals and cleaning services. She is also one of the older forms of “human-like robots” known for their ability to satisfy without any compunction - either member, male or female, with oral sex or intercourse if the human need arises.

The universality of two people meeting for the first time, learning about each other's baggage and foibles and being forced to overcome them in order to at least be friends if not lovers cannot be denied. This is a love story set in outer space plain and simple, even though it is suggested in the play that couples may have been placed together purposely to repopulate the new planet. 

I highly recommend this production for its unique retelling of a tale as old as time, when Fate meets Destiny and two very "human" human beings struggle to please each other while being true to their own individual dreams of the future but must in the end reveal the dark, undesirable places of their souls in order to overcome them and move into a deeper union free of mistakes or tragedies of the past.

Excellent performances and an imaginative script make Pilgrims a compelling and often humorous sci-fi love story that resonates. Pilgrims is being performed at Gift Theatre through July 30th. For more show information or to purchase tickets visit www.thegifttheatre.org.

Published in Theatre in Review

Shattered Globe Theatre welcomes back one of Chicago’s own, Sarah Ruhl.  “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a new play making its Midwestern debut at Theater Wit. Ms. Ruhl is one of the country’s foremost playwrights right now. She has another new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” currently running at the Lincoln Center in New York. Her work is often produced in Chicago usually directed by her friend Jessica Thebus. This is an especially personal production for Ruhl as it stars her own mother (Kathleen Ruhl) in the title role. 

 

No, this is not another warmed over incantation of the JM Barrie fairy tale. While somewhat influenced by the source material, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a very realistic story of five siblings grappling with the death of their father. What begins in a depressing hospital room, moves to a whiskey-soaked conversation between siblings that eventually turns into a make-believe version of Peter Pan. 

 

At its core, this is a play about love. There are plenty of plays about dysfunctional families, and this isn’t one of them. What it boils down to are five adult children trying to pinpoint a time when they felt their father’s love. These siblings have differing political beliefs and Ruhl’s apt commentary about our current climate is especially sharp, without being polarizing. There’s a great deal of truth in the courtesy her characters show for one another’s opinions. She also spends a great deal of the play dissecting the role of Catholicism and whether or not there is an afterlife. Despite the volley of bittersweet and at times painful memories of their childhood, these characters love each other and that is felt in the dialogue and performances. 

 

Kathleen Ruhl is adorable as the oldest sister and former Peter Pan star, Ann. Perhaps it’s her relation to the playwright, or her commitment to character, but Kathleen Ruhl makes the audience question how much of this work is fiction and how much is fact? Eileen Niccolai, a Shattered Globe ensemble member, provides a lot of the humor, but also some of the more heartfelt moments as youngest sister Wendy. All the siblings are named for Peter Pan characters, which underscores Sarah Ruhl’s point that with their parents gone, they are orphans now and need to grow up. 

 

Like any Sarah Ruhl work, there is a great deal of whimsy. With each new work, Ruhl continues to keep one foot on the ground and one in the clouds. “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” is both prolific in its subject matter and also aesthetically striking it its presentation. The reality of the situation and the poignancy of the lines allows the audience to trust their narrator and fly when the time comes. 

 

Shattered Globe’s “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is being performed at Theater Wit at 1229 W Belmont (773.975.8150) and has been extended through May 27th. 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

 

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