Parents of Chicago, take heed. Sean Kelly’s new play, Psychonaut Librarians, is not in keeping with the principles of the D.A.R.E. program. It is a story about people who (gasp!) take psychedelic drugs that allow them to (shriek!) open up their perception of reality and (the horror!) have totally awesome adventures that are a rollicking good time for all! That’s right, Psychonaut Librarians, directed here in its world premiere production by Krissy Vanderwarker makes taking illegal substances seem like it’s a pretty fantastic idea. Nancy Reagan would hate this show.
The play draws deep from the well of ’70s and ’80s fantasy and sci-fi. And not the prestigious stuff either. No, these are the B– and C-movies, the kind that play on cable in either the dead of night or the dead of mid-weekday-afternoon. The story begins when an eccentric, divorced librarian named Hester (David Cerda) kidnaps her young daughter, Jane (Christine Mayland Perkins), in the middle of the night and takes her to the local library for some quality mother-daughter time. When Jane finally falls asleep, curled up in a chair, her dreams are plagued by fantastical creatures, including the sinister Sandman (Jack McCabe) and the not-at-all sinister Dewey (Matt Farabee), a dream sprite (or something similar enough) that falls in love with Jane and takes human form so that he can be with her. Weird dream, yeah? Kids and their active imaginations!
Except of course that’s not what’s happening! Have you seen what this show is called? Jane’s dreams are very disturbingly real. And while Jane’s mother, a self-declared psychonaut, needs to take acid to open up her perceptions and travel through the “Anyverse,” Jane can apparently do it without any substances whatsoever. At least until the Sandman makes a deal with Hester to close off Jane’s extra-sensory gifts in return for him, well, not murdering her and eating her soul.
Smash-cut to two decades later, when Jane, long estranged from both her mother and the world at large, shows up at the Chicago Public Library branch where Hester works. What Jane thought was a cryptic note from her mother turns out to have actually been a missive from Hester’s two underlings Rosemary (Morgan McNaught) and Emmerick (Michael Peters); unbeknownst to Hester, the two have discovered both her psychonaut secret and her secret psychonaut stash. Since then they’ve been dropping mad acid traversing the Anyverse themselves. Soon enough, all four of them—plus the library’s security guard, PJ (Carlos Olmedo)—find themselves tripping balls in another dimension, where dangers and opportunities abound in equal measure.
Much credit is due to Vanderwarker and the design team. The show’s lo-fi, mostly puppet-based effects (by Breanne Ward and Evan Troost) are not just the result of financial necessity; they are also a fitting tribute to the kinds of low-budget sub-classics that this play so lovingly parodies. Meanwhile, Yeaji Kim’s white and gray library set evokes both black-and-white sci-fi films and comic book panels while also creating a suitable palette for the lights and video projections (by Alexander Ridgers) to work their magic. However, the greatest contribution has to be Matthew Muniz’s perfectly proggy score. From the cast, it’s Peters’s performance as the tightly wound Emmerick that deserves special mention. It’s the kind of comedic scene-stealer that should, by all rights, get nominated for a Jeff Award but won’t because, again, have you seen the title of this show?
The show can feel at times like two different plays that have been soldered together: one an earnest, philosophical head trip, the other a goofball fantasy romp. One takes its story about expanded perceptions very seriously—with dialogue that’s like if a blacklight were given the gift of speech—while the other has funny costumes and werewolves. Though Vanderwarker mostly does a good job of marrying the two forms together, there are times they still fit awkwardly. And yet at other times, the clashing tonalities actually feel quite fitting. After all, this is a show about embracing the chaos of a fully-lived life. And life, with psychedelic drugs or without, is anything but tonally consistent.
The New Colony at the Den Theatre. By Sean Kelly. Directed by Krissy Vanderwaker. With David Cerda, Matt Farabee, Jack McCabe, Morgan McNaught, Carlos Olmedo, Christine Mayland Perkins, Michael Peters. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.