If you had a sibling who was your playmate as a child, did you ever think about how your relationship would change when you grew up? Borealis, the new play opening The House Theatre of Chicago’s seventeenth season, displays the ingenious designs that are the signature of a company dedicated to “amazing feats of storytelling.” It’s also a satire of corporate offices and hierarchies that will have anybody who has ever worked in such an environment chuckling along. But at its core is a tale of how the things that seemed important as a child are very different from what one values as an adult, and how changes in values can be terrifying to someone on the other side.
The House Theatre of Chicago goes to Alaska
Cozbi (Tia Pinson) is a thirteen-year-old orphan being raised in remote Alaska by her brother, Absalom (Desmond Gray). When they’re together, they spar and imagine themselves to be role playing game fantasy-genre heroes. But most of the time, he’s working on an oil rig and she’s alone in the dark. One day, Cozbi begs him to quit, saying they can live anywhere else, and he tells her he’ll give his two weeks’ notice. He never returns. Instead, Cozbi gets a heavily redacted letter from the company in which he says he is not free to leave, and Cozbi takes up her axe to go in search of him. But a nearby sage warns her to be careful; the company is unimaginably powerful and malevolent, and to get to the oil rigs, she’ll have to first go through its office park.
Reimagining and Reprioritizing
Playwright Benett Fisher and director Monty Cole have imagined the company’s office as a dungeon filled with monsters, traps, and magic items. This is a corporation that placates employees who don’t share in its profits by offering endless pastries and recalled coffee. One sympathetic supply stocker advises Cozbi that if she wears a zip-up cotton-polyester jacket she’ll be camouflaged. To Cozbi, it’s all wonderous, but unsettling and hostile. And that’s not even getting into the strange transformations that have occurred to the adults: cyborg hive-minded insect people with lights glowing from their heads who speak in nonsensical acronyms. Outwitting them is a bit like Through the Looking Glass, but works according to RPG logic.
The satire is hilarious, at least in this writer's view, but also quite poignant. Johnny Arena, Ben Hertel, and Paige Hoffman alternate roles as various inhuman denizens; and Cozbi is determined that her brother not end up like them. However, she also manages to bring out the vulnerability in a few of them and finds a somewhat kindred spirit in the young hospitality worker, Abbot (Karissa Murrel Myers), who is not completely sure this is where she wants to be, either. But Bennett’s story isn’t just a lament about growing up. Cozbi’s most formidable opponent, the supervisor Berg (McKenzie Chinn) makes a good case for the things adults want being different from what children want. Chinn’s sinister presence is disarmingly maternal, and costume designer Izumi Inaba has clad her in a dress that is part reptilian, part space dictator. She’s a study in contrast with Pinson’s innocent, explosive, earnest Cozbi, who is horrified that anybody could enjoy living this way.
A Lonely, Otherworldly Beauty
The design elements are what really make a House show. Inaba, lighting designer Lee Keenan, and scenic designer Eleanor Kahn are—from the point of view of this reviewer— at the top of their game, having enclosed us in a cage that could be oil industry equipment. Projection designer Joseph Burke and composer Matthew Muñiz have also supplied some of Alaska’s haunting beauty. Many of the later scenes take place outdoors in the aftermath of a horrific storm. There’s also very heavy use of Gaby Labotka’s fight choreography, nearly once per scene, and of Breon Arzell’s complex choreography. Some may find it excessive. The theme of freewheeling imagination versus institutional achievement also seems to imply that Cozbi doesn’t go to school, or she would already know most of this. But taken as it is, the show is a brilliant satire, a feast for the senses, and a fascinating study of what happens when one sibling is in the adult world while the other is very much a child.
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.
Paige Hoffman, Johnny Arena, Ben Hertel, Desmond Gray, Tia Pinson, McKenzie Chinn, Karissa J. Murrell Myers, Madhura Jugade, Juan Munoz, Oly Oxinfry.
Bennett Fisher, Monty Cole, Matthew Muñiz, Eleanor Kahn, Lee Keenan, Izumi Inaba, Sarah D. Espinoza, Joseph Burke, Ellie Terrell, Breon Arzell, Gaby Labotka, Amalie Vega, Marika Mashburn, Abhi Shrestha
Upstairs at the Chopin Theatre
1543 W Division St, Chicago
Through October 21
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Sundays at 7:00 pm except for September 27 and October 7, when it is at 3:00 pm.
Running time is two hours with one intermission.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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