The Sound Chicago’s world premiere production of Red Bowl at the Jeffs, written by Beth Hyland, offers audiences an intimate glimpse into the inner-workings of one of the hallmarks of the Chicago theatre scene: a non-equity storefront theatre company started by a group of college friends fresh out of school and with stars in their eyes. Presented in The Frontier Space, a theatre often used by small itinerant companies not dissimilar to the fictitious and eponymous Red Bowl Ensemble, director Rebecca Willingham’s intimate staging is a heartfelt and poignant exploration of friendship, art, and the shifting definitions of success.
Red Bowl at the Jeffs Is Delightfully Chekhovian
Loosely inspired by The Three Sisters--which, incidentally, is the production that has landed Red Bowl Ensemble two Jeff nominations--Red Bowl at the Jeffs is Chekhovian in its naturalistic approach to its subject matter. Hyland is a skilled playwright, crafting characters with a deft objectivity akin to Chekhov himself. Each character is rendered with such humanity and specificity that it’s easy to find yourself rooting for each and every one of them even as you feel sorry for all of them. Actress Georgi McCauley anchors the production with a compelling, layered performance as Elena, a director who is becoming jaded by the lack of consistent work and the success of those around her. Her actor ex-boyfriend Gabe (Aaron Latterell), for example, has recently booked a part in a Steppenwolf show helmed by a big-name director. To make matters worse, Gabe has started dating Julie (Ella Pennington), a young actress whom he met in Elena’s cast.
Helping Elena navigate theatre and adulthood is Red Bowl co-founder Caroline (Anne E. Thompson) who earnestly tries to remind everyone that this group was formed to make art; not garner awards. Meanwhile, Alex (Faith Servant) seems more interested in the company’s pivot to producing new work (and her play), Devin (Pernell Myers) anxiously awaits news about a recent television audition, and Andy (Andrew Cutler) hopes to better define his relationship with Elena after a drunken hookup. And then there’s Hank, Caroline’s bizarre brother played with gleeful weirdness by Carter Caldwell.
The Sound Chicago Production Features Strong Design and Direction
If that sounds like a dense and intimidating number of characters and story threads to follow across Red Bowl at the Jeffs’ lean, 75-minute running time, fear not. Under Willingham’s direction, the storytelling remains crystal clear, even as characters talk over each other. Her focused approach to the narrative makes this character-driven comedy sing, allowing for comprehension without sacrificing the pace of the piece. Additionally, Willingham manages to creatively utilize a variety of areas in The Frontier often left unembraced, smartly activating all the real estate the tiny storefront has to offer.
This intuitive use of space is complemented by equally smart design. Alex Beal’s lighting design neatly straddles realism and symbolism, evocatively upping the emotional resonance of several key moments without taking audiences out of the world of the play. Sound design by Shain Longbehn is just as engrossing, as is Dana Macel’s Scenic Design, which, to this reviewer, nailed the milieu of a certain Chicagoland Mariott’s ball room. Red Bowl at the Jeffs’ keen direction and design slickly elevate the material.
Playwright Beth Hyland A Clear Talent to Watch
Hyland is to be commended for her hilarious, authentic, and unflinching look into the world of small-time storefront theatre companies with Red Bowl at the Jeffs. In mining the murky territory that comes when personal relationships become professional and professional relationships become personal, she has insightfully captured the compelling mixture of passion, hunger, and naivete that inspires so many twenty-somethings to create theatre independently. Hyland captures these exchanges with a real ear for dialogue--one of her many strengths on display in Red Bowl.
Even more impressive, however, is how Hyland manages to work in legitimate concerns about such endeavors. Many of the play’s characters are struggling to survive, unhappy with how they define their own success, and jealous of the achievements of other theatre makers.
This is, unfortunately, not uncommon amongst millenial artmakers. Indeed, to this reviewer, who in addition to directing helmed a now-defunct theatre company for three years, there are many conversations in Red Bowl at the Jeffs that hit very close to home, echoing similar concerns myself and other company members expressed about the financial and emotional sustainability of operating a theatre company. And yet, Hyland, Willingham, and their accomplished cast still manage to capture the powerful high that only comes with sharing stories with an audience of strangers. While each character’s experience at the Jeffs is far from how they first imagined it would be, the fact remains that even if they’re sitting far from the stage, for a brief night, they have made it.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theater in Chicago
Red Bowl at the Jeffs continues through April 21st.
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm
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