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Next Up at Steppenwolf Garage | Theater review

Three productions in rotating repertory showcase Northwestern’s newly minted M.F.A. directors and designers.

Photograph: Michael Brosilow
John Stokvis and Mildred Marie Langford in Venus at the Steppenwolf Garage

Animals Out of Paper

[fivestar:3]
Steppenwolf Garage. By Rajiv Joseph. Dir. Jaclynn Jutting. With Amy J. Carle, Derek Hasenstab, Adam Poss.

In the first installment of a new partnership between Steppenwolf and Northwestern University, NU’s graduating M.F.A. directors and designers were matched up with professional actors and Steppenwolf support for this rotating repertory. It also marks the Chicago debut of playwright Joseph, whose Pulitzer finalist Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is currently playing Broadway with Robin Williams personifying a ghostly big cat commenting on the Iraq War. Animals, an earlier play, suggests that Joseph’s metaphorical reach is slightly less successful in more quotidian settings.

Ilana (Carle), an expert origamist, is wallowing in the wake of a divorce, holed up in her studio and subsisting on takeout. Things begin to change when Andy (Hasenstab), a high-school teacher and amateur origamist, shows up at her door. Andy, the kind of guy who works rigorously at his optimism, hopes Ilana will tutor his student, Suresh (Poss), who’s shown a genius-level aptitude for folding paper.

Joseph’s metaphors can get a bit heavy-handed: Ilana is working on a medical equipment commission, designing a crease pattern for a non-invasive heart sleeve—origami to fix a broken heart, y’see. Jutting’s competent, sensitive staging doesn’t hammer quite as hard as Joseph’s script, though, and all three actors offer fine, honest work.


Venus

[fivestar:4]
By Suzan-Lori Parks. Dir. Jess McLeod. With Mildred Marie Langford, Carolyn Hoerdemann, Jeff Parker.

Parks’s 1996 dissection of Saartje Baartman, the African woman who became a sensation in 1810 England on exhibit as the “Hottentot Venus,” is marked by an interesting metatheatrical structure, interweaving the story of Venus’s travels with scenes from a Regency-style melodrama commenting on her and historical footnotes delivered by a character dubbed the Negro Resurrectionist (Michael Pogue), suggesting a modern researcher. The contrasting styles effectively illustrate the varied perspectives that congeal into what we call history.

Scenic designer Scott Davis’s creepy jumble of skeletons and specimen jars suggests a blend of circus sideshow and musty exhibit hall, while Emily Tarleton’s exquisite costumes range from Venus’s fake-native “feathers” to the ghostly white threads of Ann Sonneville and John Stokvis as Parks’s chorus. Langford, as Venus, and Hoerdemann, as the freak show’s proprietor, deliver rich performances, while McLeod’s immersive use of the in-the-round staging implicates us as viewers of both the play and the Venus spectacle.


Where We're Born

[fivestar:4]
By Lucy Thurber. Dir. Brad Akin. With Caroline Neff, Audrey Francis, Shane Kenyon.

Thurber’s 2003 play, here in its Chicago debut, is an aching, truthful portrait of small-town volatility. Lily (Neff), a freshman at Smith College, is back on break in her working-class hometown. She’s staying with her cousin Tony (Kenyon), her longtime protector, and his girlfriend, Franky (Francis); flailing to find her place in the world, Lily upsets the booze-and-weed-fueled order of Tony and Franky’s lives.

Lily’s hometown pals—who also include Tony’s buddies Drew (Max Lesser) and Vin (Tim Musachio)—eye her with a mixture of pride and resentment for having gotten out of their dead-end existence. Akin and designer Davis use their space incredibly well, smartly evoking Tony and Franky’s shitty, underfurnished domicile, while emotional wrecking ball Neff and the rest of the company perfectly capture their hard-drinking, numbing milieu.

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