Tuesday October 17th 2017

“The Haven Place” reviewed by Jacob Davis

redorchidtheater_12 Suppose that you’re in the mood for a youth theatre show this holiday season that’s accessible to Deaf audience members, but you’re looking for something set in the Lovecraft mythos. You’re in luck! Now in a world premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, Levi Holloway’s The Haven Place depicts a group of teenagers driving across what used to be North America in a recreational vehicle, dodging the Elder Gods who have wiped out most of the non-cultist adult population of the world and imprisoned most children in death camps to be raised as sacrificial victims. Red OrKids Youth Project is dedicated to giving kids, teenagers, and young adults opportunities to perform in challenging work they genuinely find interesting. In this fast-paced, but emotionally fully developed, production directed by Steven Wilson, eight young Chicago actors show that they do indeed have a great deal of talent and a love for the craft of storytelling.haven3

Seven girls are living in the RV when we first see them. They squabble over who gets to choose which videos they watch in the evenings, who has to rewind the cassette tapes (which are apparently as good as any other video storage device with no new movies being made), and who is responsible for serving as a look-out while the leader, Jess (Sarah Cartwright) and her girlfriend, Lou (Eden Strong), make dangerous supply runs into the scattered remaining free settlements. Staying alive is a struggle, but one of the girls, Hazel (Haley Bolithon) is an oracle, and has visions that she and six other children will enter The Haven Place, a secret location in ex-Alberta that the Elder Gods are unable to touch (they hope).

The girls are about to set off on the final leg of their journey when they are surprised by the appearance of a haggard and traumatized boy outside their vehicle. This presents them with an ethical dilemma. Admitting him could be a fatal mistake; the Elder Gods are able to magically bind people to them through tattoos, and anyone who speaks one of the alien deity’s names instantly draws its attention. Even if he’s not a spy, desperate people are willing to do anything and they have no reason to trust him. On the other hand, he’s a kid, like them, who needs help. Hazel suddenly has a vision that the boy should be added to their group, and the girls defer to her, though Lou does so very reluctantly. Once Teddy (Sam Blin) is aboard, he reveals that he was the only survivor of camp of children intended to be fed to Cthulhu himself, but which the octopus-headed cosmic horror destroyed when the guards rebelled against him. The girls thought such a rebellion was impossible, but this unexpected bit of hope quickly fades when Hazel’s prophetic powers fail just as another enemy of humanity, Ithaqua, sends a blizzard to bar their way.

If you’re not familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional world, you may find the exposition surrounding it a fascinating look into a nightmare-plagued mind. If you already understand the concepts, you may be a bit frustrated by how much time is spent establishing them. However, for this reviewer, who is familiar with the Elder Gods, it was refreshing to see them played completely straight and used as an entry point into exploring social dynamics and coping mechanisms among children dealing with traumatic violence and dependent on each other. Cthulhu has been a meme since before some of the actors in The Haven Place were born, but Wilson gets them to express a dire sense of urgency about him and his ilk, punctuated by psychologically much-needed chances to establish a sense of normalcy. Sound designer Jeffrey Levin has provided 80s music in accordance with Holloway’s statement that the story was based on his own childhood imaginings, but I remember being chilled at fourteen by Stephen King’s stories set in the Lovecraftian world, so the kids of at least the subsequent two decades find this premise compelling, too.havenplace

Scenic designer John Wilson, costume and props designer Kotryna Hilko, and lighting designer Heather Sparling imply a whole world through the SuperChief Motorhome, but the interplay between the actors is what makes The Haven Place more than just a curiosity. Cartwright, the oldest actress, and one of the few adults in the cast, is a natural charismatic leader, whose Jess invites trust through her parental dedication to the group. Holloway has realistically written the younger characters as somewhat snotty; Ada Grey plays the cheeky Bug, and Julissa Contreras the sardonic Oz. Contreras, like her character, is Deaf, and one of the most important dynamics in the show which establishes the kids’ sense of community is that the other characters all sign while speaking whenever Oz is present, even when they’re not directly addressing her. Eden Strong’s Lou wears a tough exterior over her inner conflict, Aria Szalai-Raymond and Nicole Rudakova’s twins Beadie and Crow’s sisterly arguing most often draws the rest of the kids out of brooding, Bolithon gives her mystical character, Hazel, a sense of being well-grounded, and Blin’s Teddy is heart-wrenching. In just one hundred minutes, it is easy to come to love these kids, who between them, may embody all the humanity left in the world.

The Haven Place will continue at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N Wells, Chicago, thru December 30, with performances as follows:

haven2Thursdays:          8:00 pm

Fridays:               8:00 pm

Saturdays:           8:00 pm

Sundays:              3:00 pm

There will be additional performances at 8:00 pm on December 26, 27, and 28, and none on December 24 or 25.

Running time is one hundred minutes with no intermission. Parking on the street is available.

Tickets are $25, or $15 for students under 17. To order, call 312-943-8722 or visit ARedOrchid.org.

To see what others are saying, visit TheatreinChicago.com, go to Review Round-Up, and click at “The Haven Place.”

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