Saturday December 16th 2017

“Mother of Smoke” reviewed by Jacob Davis

MotherofSmoke-4-1Now enjoying its new home at the Pride Arts Center in Uptown’s Buena Park, Red Tape Theatre has opened the venue’s main stage to the site-specific performance company Walkabout Theatre. Under the direction of Walkabout’s artistic director, Thom Pasculli, the ensemble-driven Mother of Smoke centers on Walkabout’s use of movement. The company, which has previously produced plays by Charles L. Mee and an Orpheus and Eurydice adaptation at the Yates Gallery, tends to favor evocative images and themes, with linear stories providing only a loose template, and despite Mother of Smoke’s being a mashup of Mee’s The Trojan Women and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, that’s very much the case here, too. How much an audience member enjoys this show will therefore depend largely on their openness to simply experiencing whatever the performers are doing in the moment and not trying to impose a unified structure onto it.

Walkabout is dedicated to exploring strange places, and this particular room, even aside from its history, is striking for its ornateness. That’s played up by set designer Stephanie Pasculli, who has made it into the estate of downwardly-mobile Russian noblewoman Lyubov Ranevskaya (Kelsey Shipley). “Our safe space,” Lyubov muses to the audience, “never was our home,” before the actors surrounding her suddenly go from caressing each other to engaging in brutal all-against-all violence. This room is also Troy, and as reporters lament the difficulty of getting people to open up about their trauma while maintaining a distant, objective attitude toward them, a trio of Hecubas berate Helen (Kate Mazzini), who defends herself as not being responsible for other people’s actions even while acknowledging the power of her self-built brand.MotherofSmoke-1-1024x683

Charles Mee’s The Trojan Women draws as much from Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens as it does from Euripides (in that respect, this production could hardly have been timelier, since the rarely performed opera was recently staged by the Lyric). This means that a substantial portion of it actually depicts the story of Dido (Emma Ladji) and Aeneas (Alex Rodriguez). First, however, we are presented with a very condensed Cherry Orchard. When it’s cut down to its bare bones, we see that this play which supposedly depicts foolish people crippled by indecision is actually about people who have suffered a great deal of trauma and lost the motivation to take care of themselves. Lyubov’s son has drowned recently, her neighbor is a drug addict, and Lopakhin (Johnard Washington), who is tasked with reorganizing her land holdings, sees what he is doing as a kind of mercy killing. It’s still a brutal task, though, and is part of a larger cycle of violence which one could trace back all the way to the ancients and forward to Chicago today.

Lopakhin introduces himself through a dramatic monologue in which he takes a positive view of the dynamism of change, including its attendant destruction. The other notable monologue is by Cassandra (Stephanie Shum) and is, fittingly, about the frustration of attempting to use Facebook to change the world. Given the reflective nature of the characters in these stories, the monologues work well thematically, although in content they’re an odd fit. Shum is very funny and frantic as Varya, and is as adept at physical work as any of the Red Tape ensemble, while Emma Ladji is the dancer who most commonly anchors Thom Pasculli’s more meditative visuals.

It is in the second half of The Trojan Women when the ensemble’s influence on the script is the most apparent. As played by Ladji and Rodriguez, Dido and Aeneas’s tragedy is a poignant one born of the interplay of gender roles, violence, and discomfort with the upsetting of old power structures. It will rankle some theatre-goers that, although famous weighty works are the basis of Mother of Smoke, the show is not text-centric until these last few moments. (Also, Mee’s The Trojan Women is very different from that of Euripides, so people expecting the latter will need to make a sudden adjustment.) But the ticket price, which is very low, would be a bargain even just for the musical compositions of Lucia Thomas, which are a constant companion to the ensemble’s creative use of movement. Russian traditional and modern folk music blends with the keening of the three Hecubas to express the messiness of a world driven by conflict. As a chaotic experience, Mother of Smoke is often strange and confusing, but it’s never boring.

Mother of Smoke is playing at The Broadway Theater at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N Broadway, Chicago, thru April 15, with performances as follows:

MotherofSmoke-6-683x1024Thursdays:          8:00 pm

Fridays:               8:00 pm

Saturdays:           8:00 pm

Sundays:              8:00 pm

Mondays:            8:00 pm

Running time is ninety minutes. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased at redtapetheatre.org.

Street parking is available. There is a metered lot at 4149 N Clarendon.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Mother of Smoke.”

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