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Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John at the Hypocrites | Theater review

The historical Chicago characters at the center of Jay Torrence's new play get a bit lost amid the piece's quirks.

1/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

2/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

3/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

4/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

5/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

6/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

7/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

8/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

9/9
Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Ivywild at the Hypocrites | Theater review

Long before Blago and Betty Loren-Maltese, Illinois was home to "Bathhouse" John Coughlin (Jay Torrence) and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna (Ryan Walters), two equally flamboyant Chicago aldermen who reigned over the city's notorious Levee district in the late 19th century. Overseeing a haven of brothels, gambling, organized crime and political corruption, the duo helped normalize profitable vice in Chicago's own 1st Ward Sodom—and as postulated by Jay Torrence's new play, made at least one attempt to create something wholesome in the hills of Colorado. Ivywild chronicles their ill-fated efforts through vaudeville and bouffon montage and tries to exhume their story from local history. 

There are easy parallels to draw from Torrence and Hypocrites artistic director Halena Kays's haunting and brilliant Burning Bluebeard, a 2011 Neo-Futurists collaboration that similarly followed a gang of misfit entertainers' posthumous attempt to change the course of history in order to make beauty in a world marked by cruel fatalism and tragic flaws. And there's certainly beauty to be had here—Alison Siple's costume design, including a bloodsoaked feather tutu for a respirator-breathing personification of Amusement (Tien Doman), achieves visual poetry worthy of its own showcase. Jared Moore's ghostly lighting and Lizzie Bracken's spectral amusement park set are likewise transformative, sustaining the Hypocrites' tradition of consistently making tucked-away ethereal wonderlands out of a Wicker Park basement.

Taken as vignettes, many of Torrence's pieces, especially those involving a drunken, disfigured elephant reimagined as a clown (Anthony Courser), sustain themselves on their own giddy irreverence. Yet this time around, little of it seems to feed into a convincing greater narrative or the play's shoehorned, vice-vs.-purity conflict. And therein lies the best and worst of the Hypocrites—and for that matter the Neo-Futurists, with whom there is much crossover affiliation—in a nutshell. Kays and Torrence's surprises, entertaining as they may be—ensemble movement sequences, spoken-word songs, adorning audience members in dresses and taking them on a park ride—begin to feel like quirk for quirk's sake as the central characters and their historical context sink back into the footnotes they're unearthed from.

 

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