The quirky, lovable aesthetic of The Hypocrites is going to be in safe hands with new artistic director Halena Kays, based on her quirky and rather lovable new production of "Six Characters in Search of an Author," that meta-dramatic classic from 1921.
This is one of those talky plays that anyone who has taken a few dramatic literature classes has likely studied and appreciated — as William Shakespeare well knew, theater about theater done right gives an audience goose bumps — but that those us who consume metadrama for a living rarely relish seeing again.
But this brand new adaptation and updating — which lasts for just a brisk 90 minutes — from Steve Moulds is fresh, insightful and a great deal of fun.
As the audience walks into the basement of the Chopin Theatre, we're treated as if we're in attendance at an open rehearsal for a new touring production of Sean Graney's hit production of "The Pirates of Penzance," which happens to have been the actual last show by the Hypocrites, created by the former artistic director. To the chagrin of the already irritated actors ("Are we actually rehearsing ... or pretending to rehearse so the audience can see what it looks like?"), the great Graney is not there. He's too busy. His place has been taken by a neophyte, Brennan Buhl, playing himself; everyone in the outer frame kind of plays themselves.
The low-paid, exploitation-weary Chicago actors — dead-on performances from John Taflan and Laura McKenzie — are irritated at being part of a second-tier restaging of "someone else's artistic triumph," but they hang in there, partly because they've been promised that David Cromer, who created "Our Town," the most successful Hypocrites show ever, may be in the bar after rehearsal. And you never know what might come from that.
So this "audience-engagement event" begins, only to be interrupted by the arrival of, well, the familiar "Six Characters," in search not only of an author but an off-Loop theater company willing to work with kids. "If you're looking for a playwright," McKenzie's actress says, anxious to get back to rehearsal and wary of stage children, "you should try Chicago Dramatists." But the weird period-people in the strange wigs (costumer Alison Heryer does great work) do not move.
Actually, this tortured family refuses to move in quite the visually spectacular fashion, all arranged like the opening tableau of "The Addams Family." And so, the modern-day actors go with the flow, drawing from their Chicago actors' improv tool box, even as they resist, like all good off-Loop players, being referred to as improvisers. Oh, the ignominy. But these are unusual circumstances. Characters actually need actors, for a change.
From that point onward, Moulds adheres more closely to the original script, although Kays consistently maintains key elements of the aesthetic that Hypocrites fans have grown to love: the use of environmental staging, the provision of swivel chairs so the audience can move around, the use of the outer lobby of the basement space at the Chopin Theatre. Even if you've never been to an off-Loop show in your life, you'll enjoy the vitality of the production. But if you're familiar with this world, you'll enjoy it even more and appreciate the sharpness of Kays' satiric scalpel; she's been around this community a long time, and it shows.
The main inner play — wherein the period characters insist their story be told — has some truly arresting moments, and there is one performance from Samantha Gleisten as the Mother that is as honest and unstinting as you could wish. Ada Gray, the child actress playing the truly creepy kid, also fixes her all-knowing eyes on her prey in the spookiest fashion. This part of the show does not go as far as it should in the truth-and-honesty department — if it did, the contrast with the free-wheeling humor of the outer frame would have forged a truly blistering and revelatory show that could well have followed "Our Town" to New York. But it goes far enough for you to see what Kays was intending and see the sophistication of her genuinely Pirandellian effort.
When: Through March 11
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $28-36 at 773-989-7352 or the-hypocrites.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye