On stage: Chicago history, Middle East ambiguity

Two intriguing plays at two of my favorite small theaters:  Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John at The Hypocrites and In a Garden at A Red Orchid Theatre. Both are still running; details below.

Ivywild: Part Carnival, Part History Lesson

Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John, the new play by the ever-audacious The Hypocrites http://www.the-hypocrites.com, is part carnival, part Chicago history lesson, and it is a delightful 90 minutes of fact mixed with fantasy. The play is written by Jay Torrence and directed by The Hypocrites’ artistic director, Halena Kays.

ivywild2When you walk into the lower-level performance space at Chopin Theatre, you know you are in for some fun. The set is a carousel with swings, made of faux antique materials, and light bulbs are festooned everywhere. Platform pieces move around and provide performance space. Before the performance begins, two audience members are asked to don white pinafore dresses so they can participate in simulated rides in the amusement park. The audience, seated close to the action as usual in this space, feels like part of the show. (Photo courtesy of The Hypocrites. Clockwise from bottom left: Ryan Walters as Kenna, Anthony Courser as Princess, Jay Torrence as Bathhouse John, Tien Doman as The Amusement and Kurt Chiang as little Walt.)

Torrence plays “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, the First Ward Alderman of Chicago during the 1890s, when the 20-square block area around Cermak and Michigan was the levee district, populated by saloons, brothels, gambling houses and plenty of corruption to fund it. Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, the precinct captain and later the second First Ward Alderman, is played by Ryan Walters. (Until redistricting in 1923, each Chicago ward had two aldermen.) The two amass great wealth through the levee district businesses, political corruption and general debauchery.

Ivywild is the amusement park and zoo that Bathhouse John actually built on a tract of land near Colorado Springs, where he has bought a second home. Coughlin meets young Walt Colburn (Kurt Chiang) there and makes him his personal assistant. Colorado, at that time, was home to hundreds of tuberculosis sanatoriums, where patients from all over the country would go to seek relief. Those are the factual threads that are woven throughout the play.

The other characters are Anthony Courser as Princess, an alcoholic elephant in a pink tutu with a deformed trunk, and a fantastical symbolic character named “The Amusement,” a lovely tubercular mime on a respirator, played by Tien Doman. (All the cast members also perform with the NEo-Futurists http://neofuturists.org, where Kays formerly directed. This connection suggests we might see some interesting future possibilities for these two innovative companies.)

The playbill includes a timeline of the Ivywild/First Ward Chicago story. Even if you know that period of Chicago history or read the timeline before the play starts, you may find it hard to follow the non-linear thread of the story. But no matter. Just enjoy the flow. Accept the fact that Princess may address the audience and tell the story of how she lost her trunk. (“The elevator door chopped off my nose.”)

Torrence’s Bathhouse John as a song and dance man—a pol who sees himself as a poet and songwriter, as well as the creator of a grand amusement park. His sartorial flamboyance was legendary. Hinky Dink Kenna was more conservative in dress and demeanor, and tries to push his partner to return to Chicago and pay attention to First Ward business. This Chicago duo suggests how Chicago won its reputation as a center for crime and corruption, even before the arrival of Al Capone.

Ivywild runs through June 16, so please be sure to see it. The Hypocrites perform at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St. Shows are at 7:30 pm Monday, Friday and Saturday and at 3pm Sunday.

A Gazebo Among the Lemon Trees

A Red Orchid Theatre http://www.aredorchidtheatre.org is presenting In a Garden by Howard Korder, a fast-moving and smartly written play in nine scenes spanning 15 years from 1989 to 2004. The play portrays the frustration of an ambitious American architect (played by Larry Grimm) proposing a design for a fictitious Middle Eastern country named Aquaat, which might be Iraq.

Rom Barkhordar, Larry Grimm HDirector Lou Contey keeps the action moving well, with quick scene changes made by a stage assistant, veiled and silent — the only woman who appears. Broadcast news snippets between scenes set the time line. The tiny Red Orchid space is the office of the minister of culture (a strong performance by Rom Borkhardor), a man enamored of American pop culture and American architects. The architect and the minister develop an uneasy friendship over the years–but the play, which starts out like a satire with many clever lines about truth and beauty, becomes darker as the scenes progress. (Photo courtesy of A Red Orchid Theatre. Left, Borkhardor as the minister, and Larry Grimm as the architect.) 

The architect has not had a successful career; he has several proposed and unbuilt projects in different countries and the minister refers to him as a second-tier architect. He is desperate to see one of his designs built, which may explain why he suffers through years of ambiguity and misdirection from his client (or patron, as the minister prefers). It’s never clear who is making the decisions or if in fact a decision will ever be made to build the gazebo in a peaceful garden of lemon trees so desired by the minister.

In the final scene in 2004, everything has changed: the space, the architect’s professional goals and the minister’s status. The gazebo was finally built, but now is gone. The lemon trees remain – to be enjoyed by the office’s new occupant: an American army officer.

In a Garden runs through Sunday, May 19, so you still have a chance to see it. Shows are at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3pm Sunday. A Red Orchid Theatre performs at 1531 N. Wells St.

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Slightly different versions of these reviews appear at gapersblock.com, a Chicago website, on the A/C or Arts page.

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2 Comments on “On stage: Chicago history, Middle East ambiguity”

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