Act(s) of God @ Lookingglass Theater

3 stars out of 4

Watching Kareem Bandealy’s alternately ruminative and combative examination of faith, reality and the divine as seen through the prism of an unnamed every-family, now receiving its world premiere production at Lookingglass Theatre Company, is like hopping a slow freight train to nowhere. Your destination is unknown and every time the sliding doors open, the landscape has shifted. And every time a new landscape is revealed, you see a new manifestation of God. Maybe. Meanwhile, the every-family has issues both god-related and very human, with differing beliefs being only one of the sources of tension among the members as they search for purpose in the middle of a desert on April 13, 2029. There is a lot, and simultaneously very little, happening in Bandealy’s ambitious play, and not all the stories and storytelling methods are equally successful, but thanks to go-for-broke direction by Heidi Stillman and utterly unironic, committed performances from a pitch-perfect cast, the uneven script is consistently engaging and thought-provoking.

Act(s) of God is nothing if not ambitious. Told in three acts—or act(s)—and a range of theatrical styles, the play touches on religion, faith, domestic strife, identity, and perceptions. More than once, a character says she is exactly who they appear to be. However, what they appear to be is often changing and never as easy to nail down as one would like. And really, is it ever? The sprawling script, full of pop culture and religious references, is occasionally messy and confounding. It probably does not matter if the play is about reality, art, theater, or God, ultimately, and Bandealy does avoid giving away his intentions, except in a few metatheatrical hints. God and His or Her messengers and apostles are constantly discussed, and there may be several divine signs or appearances, but what you see will depend very much on what you believe. The play begins with a sign that appears as an asteroid named after an ancient Egyptian snake god narrowly bypasses Earth—an envelope of mysterious origin tucked into a pile of junk mail (yes, junk mail still exists in the carless future) that proves difficult to open and even more difficult to decipher. In the process of trying to both, the converging family members begin to reveal their expectations of each other and their identities. An outsider, Middle’s (as in, Middle Child) fiancée, arrives on the scene, triggering instinctive defensiveness in the insular family. In the second act, the recriminations of years crescendo to Biblical heights. In the third, well, things continue to fall apart.

Director Heidi Stillman allows Bandealy’s play to unfold with all its twists and operatic (literally, in one case) excesses, and she has directed her talented cast to play each moment without a hint of parody—it’s the right choice to propel the action to an ending that audiences will either love or hate. Supporting the cast are Brian Sidney Bembridge, whose antiseptic set mirrors the rigid family structures, while his lighting design reinforces the supernatural undertones (or maybe it’s just an electrical glitch) without interfering with one’s own interpretations. Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld lends a sitcom aesthetic, exaggerating the markers that define the characters without quite veering into the cartoonish. Sound designer and co-composer Rick Sims provides a soundtrack that places the audience squarely into the onstage world, from droning radio broadcasts, to the music that reveals the heart of several characters along the way, to the voice of God/god. Choreographer Tracy Walsh and fight choreographer Matt Hawkins each contribute movement that underscores seismic shifts in relationships.

Headed by a mercurial, moving and often very funny Shannon Cochran as Mother, who requires her family to fit the roles she has assigned to them, since she has given up her own identity to be Mother, the cast assembled for this premiere is first rate. Rom Barkhordar as Father alternates between mousy and stentorian, creating a sympathetic portrait of a man who can no longer fill his own image of himself, yet is determined to maintain his role in the domestic patriarchy (and he can still read arcane scripts and fix electrical circuits). Anthony Irons as the buttoned-down Middle captures the vulnerability behind his bluster, and the fear that governs his success. As Eldest, Kristina Valada-Viars is brash and fragile, keeping her fury and recognition of her own shortcomings in check with cutting contempt. Walter Briggs is stellar as the slacker Youngest, whose attempts to claim his own opinions often get appropriated by others or buried in doubt, but who nevertheless continues to try grow past the kid in the racecar bed with the overachieving older siblings. Emjoy Gavino plays the interloper, Middle’s Fiancée, with almost grating ingratiating charm, though each encounter leads to a greater knowledge of who she is—and isn’t. The whole ensemble plays off each other with dexterity, matching each other vocally and physically as the world shifts beneath their feet.

Act(s) of God is a domestic dramady that is part soap opera, part absurdist romp, part philosophical dialectic. At its best, it resembles the family portraits of Albee, the incisive absurdism of Ionesco, and the philosophical musings of Thornton Wilder. Yet Kareem Bandealy’s new play seems to be looking for a way to tie together all the things it tries to be, making for some disconcerting hairpin turns in tone and style. Nevertheless, the everything-and-the-kitchen sink approach to storytelling yields some rewards—there is plenty to discuss and ponder after the metaphorical curtain falls: about God, reality, identity and family. Under Heidi Stillman’s no-holds-barred direction, performed by top-notch cast, Bandealy’s clever, entertaining script makes for a bewildering but worthwhile evening of theater.

Act(s) of God runs through April 7 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, located inside the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. at Pearson, Tuesdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. (and Sundays March 3, 10, and 31), with 2:00 pm performances on Thursdays (March 7 and 21, and April 4 only), Saturdays, and Sundays. Regular tickets are $40 - $75 and can be purchased online at www.lookingglasstheatre.org or by phone at (312)337-0665. For more information, visit www.theatreinchicago.com.

Photo by Liz Lauren

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.