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  • Theater
  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Photograph: Gregg Gilman

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Alistair McDowall’s Pomona wears its influences on its sleeve—film noir, Dungeons & Dragons, the horror oeuvre of H.P. Lovecraft—yet it still feels bracingly original. At the center of this stunning play sits the island of Pomona, a blasted strip that floats in Manchester like a black hole at the heart of a cold, unfeeling cosmos. McDowall takes a simple premise—a young woman, Ollie (Amber Sallis), searching for her sister in Manchester’s criminal underbelly—and turns it into a rabbit hole leading down to the gates of Hell. In the play’s bleak estimation, there is no guiding hand of fate; if there is a God, he’s playing 20-sided dice with the universe. But unlike many dark-minded works, Pomona is also a wildly good time: a surreal puzzle box that is equal parts dream logic and classic gumshoe mystery.

Confirming Steep Theatre Company’s reputation as Chicago’s go-to spot for contemporary British theater, director Robin Witt hones Pomona’s plotting to a razor-sharp point, much as the play itself whittles the existential dread of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos down to human proportions. (The demonic elder god himself is represented by a rubber mask whose wearer lurks in the voluminous shadows of Brandon Wardell’s lighting design.) McDowall’s labyrinthine plot moves backwards and forwards through time, intertwining Ollie’s search with the stories of two hired goons (Nate Faust and Brandon Rivera), a sex worker (Ashlyn Lozano), a crime boss (Jamila Tyler), a mysterious D&D enthusiast (Phoebe Moore) and a sinister landlord named Zeppo (Peter Moore). 

Joe Schermoly’s catacumbal set plunges the audience into Pomona’s twisted, brutal worldview, and Witt’s in-the-round staging echoes the script’s continual return to the notion of loops: cars on a ring road, shoppers at a mall, eternal cycles of violence and abuse. This is Steep and Witt’s second go-around with McDowall; the first was their hit 2015 production of Brilliant Adventures. His carefully crafted but daringly imaginative voice has found an ideal partner in Steep’s precise, emotionally resonant approach. It’s not unlike the thrilling sense of collaboration that forms the core of a good D&D campaign. Many shows could learn a lesson or two from its intense, exhilarating sense of play.

Steep Theatre Company. By Alistair McDowall. Directed by Robin Witt. With Nate Faust, 
Ashlyn Lozano, 
Phoebe Moore
, Peter Moore, Brandon Rivera, Amber Sallis, Jamila Tyler. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.

Written by
Alex Huntsberger


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