3.5 Stars out of 4
Playwright Novid Parsi, in Through the Elevated Line, receiving its world premiere at Silk Road Rising under the assured direction of Carin Silkaitis, does a remarkable job of translating the outlines of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire to the story of a gay refugee from Iran on the North Side of Chicago. Like Blanche in Williams’ play, Razi Gol is forced to rely first on his sister and her rough-hewn husband and then on “the kindness of strangers.” Like Blanche, he manages to wear out his welcome with his remaining relative and alienate her friends, as well as, presumably, much of the audience. So, we are left with the question of who is responsible for this man, who appears to have little to offer the country that he has fled to, but whose life is in danger if he returns to the home he left behind.
Novid Parsi’s script not only offers an homage to Williams, it uses this device to raise issues of culture, race, class and the meaning of the American dream. And, while Uptown is no Elysian Fields and the Red Line is a poor substitute for a streetcar named Desire as far as metaphorical heft, Chicago and, in recounted memories, Tehran are rendered with nearly as much color as the New Orleans of Williams’ play. It’s 2016, and it looks like the Chicago Cubs might finally go all the way when Razi Gol arrives, early, to take up temporary residence with his sister, Soraya, who is in her final year of her residency before graduating and becoming a plastic surgeon, and her husband, Chuck, who buys rundown properties to rehab and flip. Razi is immediately turned off by his new surroundings--he mistakes a paletas vendor’s offer of assistance as a request for money and in short order disparages the neighborhood (too dirty and too diverse), Chuck and Soraya’s temporary residence (an in-progress duplex that Chuck is remodeling) and Soraya and Chuck’s careers (too superficial). Razi rhapsodizes about the poet Hafez and the home and friends he lost in Iran, which quickly galls the pragmatic Chuck. As in Streetcar, all is not as it seems with Razi, the Blanche of this play, and, as the truth emerges, Razi’s exile becomes a litmus test for the other characters, and the audience, of the limits of compassion. For the most part, Parsi does an admirable job of plotting his play and the character’s motivations, except for one potentially interesting counterpoint to Razi, an undocumented worker supporting his family as a construction worker employed by Chuck, who ends up serving mostly as a plot device.
Director Carin Silkaitis plumbs the characters and philosophy of the play, while keeping it moving swiftly from scene to scene. She and her design team do a laudable job of creating the world of the characters and then staying out of their way. Set designer Joe Schermoly’s open-plan condo allows for smooth transitions between indoor and outdoor scenes, as well as illustrating the passage of time as renovations near completion. Lighting designer Lindsey Lydden brilliantly guides the audience through season, time, interiors, exteriors and the dimly-lit prismatic world that Razi’s lantern creates. Sound designer Jeffrey Levin, who also contributes original music, creates an aural intersection between the worlds that collide in the play, helping support scenes and transitions without becoming heavy-handed. Costume designer Elsa Hiltner likewise knows how her Chicago-based characters would dress, with each character bringing a distinctive, but wholly plausible, style to their interactions, and Razi learning how to reinvent himself in his adopted city. Abigail Cain’s props ground the action in the condo, while adding touches reminiscent of Razi’s Persian home. Silkaitis shows a keen understanding of the resonances between Parsi’s script and Williams’, but more importantly, a lack of indulgence coupled with a strong empathetic understanding of the wrenching situation that unfolds and the characters that find themselves caught up in trying to cling to what they hold dear when identities prove more elusive than they seemed to be, and the solid ground of reality less solid.
Leading the cast is Salar Ardebili as Razi, a gay man fleeing persecution in Tehran, who is clearly traumatized and fragile, though equally judgmental and arrogant. While occasionally charming (especially when wooing a potential suitor), Razi and his love of the poet Hafez soon become nearly as irritating to the audience as he does to his sometimes-boorish host Chuck. Ardebili does not shirk from Razi’s pain nor his discomfiture, creating a brilliant portrait of a damaged soul—though not necessarily a sympathetic character. As Chuck, Joshua J. Volkers portrays the best and worst of Chicago’s working-class, entrepreneurial work ethic. Too loud, too opinionated (in that always-right way) and sometimes abusive, Volkers nevertheless creates a sympathetic portrait of a man whose world is expanding beyond what he can control. As his wife Soraya, Catherine Dildilian captures perfectly the experience of an outsider who has found her own identity, despite the continued need to code-switch, able to see beyond the exterior, but also fiercely possessive of what she has arduously claimed as her own (superficial—as Razi defines it—or not). Philip Winston is sympathetic and charming as Sean, the man who wants to give Razi a chance in his affections, who ignores the red flags raised by Razi’s behavior until he is forced to confront them. As his sister, Beth, who chooses to overlook a lot of bad behavior and commentary, Alison Plott is grounded and sensible as she finds her own tolerance tested by her friends. Scott Shimizu plays the Chicago bro to the hilt as a first-generation American who is living the American Dream without acknowledging that not everyone has access to it or his own immigrant heritage. As Cesar, who lends another immigrant perspective as a hardworking but undocumented carpenter, Armando Reyes makes the most of a role that offers some interesting narrative possibilities but ends up as a plot twist. Reyes does his best to create a character before the unexplained dichotomies emerge with disconcerting abruptness, as well as inhabiting several smaller roles that highlight the immigrant experience in (very) different ways.
As both a tribute to Tennessee Williams and an examination of national and personal identity, Novid Parsi’s Through the Elevated Line is an admirable addition to the Chicago theater scene. In telling Ravi’s story, as a refugee who needs asylum as much as any, but who, mostly through his own choices, truly is left with little option but to rely on the kindness of strangers, Parsi puts the question to the audience: how far should compassion reach, both for countries and for individuals? How do we respond to those in need--not those who are willing to pay their own way--but those who simply need help? Who is responsible for those who are rejected by their own countries? Who is responsible for helping those who cannot help themselves? These questions play out against the backdrop of a scrappy Chicago full of hope and opportunities, as well as the attitudes that keep some people from being able to embrace them. In the deft hands of the playwright, director Carin Silkaitis and a stellar cast, the questions are asked in a fast-paced, entertaining and colorful drama that contains enough compassion and humor to make the audience care about issues and questions that it is tempting to sidestep.
Through the Elevated Line runs through April 15 at Silk Road Rising in the Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St., Lower Level. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 4:00pm. Tickets can be purchased at www.SilkRoadRising.org or by calling the Silk Road Rising Box office at (312)857-1234 x201. For more information, visit www.theatreinchicago.com.
Photo by Airan Wright: Salar Ardebili (foreground), Joshua J. Volkers, Catherine Dildilian and Alison Plott
Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.