Summer’s End @ Rough House

3 Stars out of 4

Think Kafka’s Metamorphosis meets Judy Blume's Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret.

Rough House Theater has delightfully and thoughtfully captured our bizarre fascination with Chicago’s surreal cicada cycles by merging it with the endless sweet longing of a human 13th summer.  Written by Claire Saxe and directed by Michael Brown, the lyrical performance seamlessly joins exquisitely crafted papier mache and inner lit puppets with live actors and a magical summer night set by Emily Breyer .  The real hero of the show is sound designer Corey Smith.  The sound of cicadas is etched into the DNA of anyone who has been a child in the Midwest.  It is the soundtrack of summer and to hear it is to evoke heat and ice cream, the smell of the pool, the feel of flip flops between your toes, the sweat beading on your skin and how languorously a summer day can pass when “there’s nothing to dooooo”.

May (winsome Jesse Ellingsen) and Ben (earnest and confused Peter Andersen) are both purportedly 13 and playing elaborate childhood games when the hormones hit.  May becomes a mystery and Ben tries to play along. Both break out of their shells as the cicadas emerge.  The story gets a bit lost in the weeds with allegory and you aren’t always sure of what exactly is actually happening to the two, and its confusing when the longing for each other become a crush on the cicadas, but you don’t care because the glowing and clicking and crawling cicadas and the shadow puppet moon and the branches and trees are so lovely.  It’s a moonlit summer night in the intimate black box at Chopin and you are transported to every memory of longing and sexual awakening  that is the hallmark of a 13th summer.

The piece is more of a dance, a kind of Bunraku evolution, not a straight play. It leaves room and time for the audience to flesh out their own version of the story.  The ending is exhilarating, though I can’t really say what it was in words.  It was a striking image of emerging.

I don’t think this script is done evolving. And we have grown accustomed to seeing actual 13 year olds play 13 year olds on stage, now that Chicago has an army of truly talented child performers.  It was a bit hard sometimes to accept the theatrical convention of adults playing nascent teens, as talented as these actors were at channeling their inner early teen.   I would LOVE to see this again with two actors in the middle of the teen transition in their own lives.   There is an ugly duckling into swan quality to real 13 year olds, a sense of anticipation of what they will become that would crystalize this tale. 

As Chicago’s summer quickly wanes, hang on to its vestiges and contemplate the life cycle of the cicada even as their buzz falls silent.  Stay after the show to marvel at the puppets and set, true works of painstakingly crafted magic! Cicada Summer: A Coming-of-Age Interspecies Romance Tragedy runs Thursday through Saturday , through September 30th downstairs at the funky fun Baroque Bohemian Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division Street Chicago IL 60642. For tickets and information go to www.roughhousetheater.com