Wayward Productions at Luther Memorial Church. By Natalie DiCristofano. Directed by Mary Patchell and Nathan Robbel. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
The young ladies at St. Cyprian's School For Girls—depending on how late you arrive, that could include you—get a hands-on lesson in history, modern lit and Wicca in Wayward Productions' site-specific retread of the Salem Witch Trials. Staged throughout the entire Luther Memorial Church with more than a few nods to the 1996 teen-witch movie The Craft, co-directors Mary Patchell and Nathan Robbel aim to transport audiences into a pernicious private school world of angst run amok.
For better or worse, transport they do…and do. And do.
You have to hand it to Robbel, the Right Brain Project artistic director whose previous works include the equally large-scale and ambitious Marat/Sade. In some of the most unfinished spaces, Robbel's projects aim to immerse audiences in living, moving art, a directorial luxury enjoyed and increasingly well utilized in the Chicago theater scene—we're a city that prides itself, rightfully so, on promenade. With Burn The Black Dog, Robbel and Patchell take the illusion one step further and derive inspiration from Punchdrunk's otherworldly New York production of Sleep No More, which chaperones masked guests around a warehouse.
There's no mask dress-code at St. Cyprian, at least—only modest blue or red lanyards. Blue folks, "faculty," follow the school's administrative drama; red guests follow the students' plot on which the rest of the story centers. For the most part, it's Arthur Miller's The Crucible by way of ’90s goth punk, with Abigail (Natalie DiCristofano) as an unstable and manipulative senior jealous of a perceived relationship between her teacher (Jasonn Rose) and Beth, a student with unrelated troubles of her own. When Beth disappears, all hell breaks loose, and the investigation knots into a sordid web of magic dabbling, accusations and violence.
Unlike the more exploratory experience given in its Punchdrunk inspiration, the two groups in BTBD merge in and out of the same scenes, each bit of exposition ostensibly delivered by different means when the groups are in different rooms. According to the company's Indiegogo page, the co-directors worked with a "Dungeon Master" to map out each "campaign," we'll call it—but if you think that implies a sense of humor or self-awareness, you'd be mistaken, and it's a noticeable absence coming from a show largely based on a campy cult classic.
The self-serious mood adds even more weight to the experience of trudging up and down stairs for 90 minutes, often for scenes that run shorter than the journey it took to see them. (Buckets of cold water bottles along the way are a thoughtful touch, but their very need should give some hint that the whole thing could be a bit more centralized.)
There are some good performances—DiCristofano seems in on her own joke and strikes a nice balance between adolescent menace and camp—and for the most part, they achieve the challenging task of selling performances inches from audiences' faces at all times. Without a more surreal, immersive world to get lost in or a steady emotional momentum to cling to, though, Burn The Black Dog gets jammed in the valley between site-specific immersion and traditional theater—the true hunt, at times, is for a chair.