Theater Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
3 out of 4
There are a lot of question marks in the new mainstage production from the bewildering minds of Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser. This is not just referring to the title of the show, but to the whole wonderful hour(?) of this perplexing show. Utilizing the segmented individual tasks/ideas of shows like Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, or the Muppets, this production mixes with a large dose of “no kids should ever witness this” to create a magical experience inside the “joy womb” performance space.
Instead of attempting to describe what happens on stage, let’s discuss what doesn’t work about this production first. As you enter, you’re asked to write down a fear you have on a piece of paper and seal it in an envelope. You take that envelope with you, step into a light to think of something that brings you joy, and then step into the joy womb to find your seat. That’s all well and good, but then the show doesn’t really do much with this idea.
Joy and Fear are used as a loose framing device for the show, occasionally touched upon, but not fully focused on. Then, at the end, they attempt to tie everything together around these two ideas. But, the issue winds up being that they don’t spend enough time with these ideas early in the production for the ending to pay off. All of a sudden, the audience is hit with an attempt at some profound statement on fear versus joy without enough information to contextualize. It’s a pretty major detraction from what was an otherwise incredibly fun performance.
Urzendowski and Courser are two of the most hilarious, easy, and specific actors in Chicago. Even playing to basically home field advantage in the Neo-Futurarium, they never fought for more laughs than what came through the truth of what they were doing. But, there were times that their concept wound up being funnier or cleverer than the execution. One example being the arrival of a “guest” (memories of Mr. Rogers hearing someone at the door). This guest joins the two unicorn-clad protagonists for tea in too-small chairs and the production proceeds to grind to a halt.
A lot of this production is improvised—which sometimes, in the case of the “guest,” means the connection and pacing falls off. But that also leads to spectacular moments like an early segment about a “swear square”—exactly what it sounds like: a square for swearing. Timing, content, execution, all exceptionally done. Aid to the timing was stage manager Clare Roche. Stage managers do their best not to be noticed, but Roche and director Adrian Danzig deserve to be complimented for the work incorporating Claire Chrzan’s gorgeous lighting design and Spencer Meeks’ gripping sound design.
Bottom line is this: The? Unicorn? Hour? is one of the most perplexing but enjoyable evenings I’ve spent laughing at theatre. Its strength lies in its ridiculous humor. But these creators want this to be more than that. This production looked to follow in the footsteps of Burning Bluebeard. Structurally and stylistically, you can feel the similarities. The source material, though, lacks the same punch, which leaves the audience with a bit more uncertainty than the creators would probably like—despite what the question marks imply.
The? Unicorn? Hour?, directed by Adrian Danzig, runs through May 13, at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland. Performances run Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information are available at neofuturists.org or 773.275.5255. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.