4 Stars out of 4
In a world where I can stream an Oscar nominated film in my bedroom on demand and see the National Theatre of London in a movie theatre down the street in a Chicago suburb, the live experience of theatre has to evolve to become something more than it may have been in previous centuries. Going to theater needs to be a full body experience that cannot be replicated electronically. You can experience the latest totally live theater concept at Windy City Playhouse in their new production called Southern Gothic. The idea of immersive theatrical experiences to fill a craving for live is not new: recently, The House Theatre’s Last Defender made the audience the play, riffing on the rise of escape rooms. In Farinelli and the King now on in New York, a portion of the audience sits on stage becoming part of the action. But Windy City Playhouse is doing something very fresh with Southern Gothic.
The experience begins when you enter the storefront on gentrifying Irving Park Road : a trendy bar with comfy lounge furniture and craft cocktails and a fireplace await you. You are given an invitation to a party on June 30th, 1961, and a set of House Rules, which include encouraging you to eat anything that’s on the dining room ,kitchen or patio tables. A theatrical experience you can taste! Though given scenic designer Scott Davis’ meticulous attention to period detail, you may not want to actually eat the Twinkies, Necco wafers, hideous Jello concoction and broken Chester’s Chips that you will find on these stylist perfect 1960’s surfaces. When the house “opens”, the 28 audience members lucky enough to score tickets (the run is sold out and has now been extended: move fast if you want to do this experience) are ushered into what appears to be the driveway and patio of the first floor of a house where the host Beau Coutier (the vulnerable Jon Hammesque Michael McKeough) is obsessively vacuuming the carpet. His beautiful young wife Ellie (the luminous Sarah Grant) bustles about: the caterer’s truck has been hit and the birthday party she is hosting for her sister is about to begin. To tell you the plot of this soap opera would be to ruin your experience. There is marital infidelity, spousal abuse, political corruption, a botched abortion in someone’s past, and a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner moment when one of the guests shows up with his latest girlfriend who he neglected to mention was black in a state where biracial relations were illegal. The various plotlines unroll as the evening unravels in the rooms of the house as the characters—and the audience!- consume more and more alcohol: I had never had a Tom Collins before, and they make an acceptable Whisky Sour that sends you home for the night.
As an audience member you are free to follow the actors and plot-lines around the rooms. It is impossible to catch everything, so you are constantly making choices as to which character to tail as you move from kitchen to patio to dining room to living room. I could see coming multiple times and following different characters. The show is humorous, but shatteringly dark, as societal constraints strangle characters, and tragedies unfold. And you are within personal space of the situation, thus the performance affects you in a visceral way. In the end, though scarred from the evening, several characters do seem to attain a certain redemption which means that though there is no happy ending, there is momentum and a kind of peace.
The cast is uniformly marvelous. It would be hard enough to enact this complicated drama without having to maneuver around and still ignore the audience members surrounding you, but the cast creates a completely believable conceit that we are just flies on the wall.
Brianna Borger as guest of honor Suzanne Wellington is a complicated horrible and loveable sister in law. Her husband Jackson, played by Paul Fagen is a man trying to rediscover his values. Christine Mayland Perkins steals the show as the caged bird Lauren Lyon. Bryan McCaskill’s Charles Lyon convincingly self-destructs before our very eyes. Ariel Richardson’s Cassie Smith is stereotype shattering and drop dead beautiful. Peter Ash as Tucker Alsworth portrays a generations worth of privileged wealthy sons who cannot find their way.
Eleanor Kahn’s prop design is a wonder of vintage research and sourcing, creating a universe those of us old enough will recognize. And Elsa Hitner’s costume design was a joy to witness especially for devotees of vintage clothes. Leslie Liataud’s thoughtful and referential script under David H. Bell’s taught direction is a satisfying full sensory experience that will make you want more. Co creators Carl Menninger and Amy Rubenstein conceived a wonderful evening.
Southern Gothic is playing at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 West Irving Park Road in Chicago, Tuesdays through Sundays (with occasional Mondays) until May 27, 2018. As noted, the show is selling out quickly so if you want to have this experience, don’t hesitate to book. For tickets and information go to http://windycityplayhouse.com/southern-gothic/ or call 773-891-8985