August Wilson used the different decades of African-American experience to organize his life's work. The very juicy playwright Leslye Headland is expeditiously working her way through the Seven Deadly Sins.
Hollywood already has found Headland's take on gluttony (that would be "Bachelorette," seen in Chicago at Profiles Theatre and also a movie starring Kirsten Dunst).The on-a-roll Chicago director Jonathan Berry, an excellent match for the intense style of a playwright still in her early 30s, has found wrath. Berry's blistering production of "Reverb," the first Chicago outing for a rock-fused play that feels like it was written for the city's storefront aesthetic, would certainly be an intense, sexy, disturbing addition to the sleepy Memorial Day weekend you had planned as an escape from all that wrath in the workplace this week. If your tastes are running to the raw and dangerous, qualities that often wither at bigger artistic institutions, this is your show. Oh, and, hello tourists. This is what they told you Chicago theater was like.
The ubertext for "Reverb," a dark, violent play about a twisted young rocker and his dysfunctional girlfriend, both of whom like to beat each other up as a means of emotional communication, involves Phil Spector, currently serving life in prison for murdering the actress Lana Clarkson. Aside from that striking manifestation of a rocker's wrath, Spector is famous for the so-called Wall of Sound; , in the early 1960s, he created especially fulsome sound by putting together a large number of musicians and simultaneously recording and playing back their output using an echo chamber. His disciple in Headland's dense, explosive, heavily metaphoric play is Dorian (the moody Peter Oyloe), a brilliant young musician and the product of a father who named him and his weak-willed sister Lydia (Brittany Burch) after musical modes with classical origins. Most of the action in this 90-minute thrill ride of violence involves Dorian's relationship with June (Mary Williamson, who is just on fire here). Headland seems to be casting June partly as a latter-day Clarkson and partly as Victoria Bennett of the Ronettes (later known as Ronnie Spector). The Ronettes' hit, "Be My Baby", is the musical signature of the show, reverberating down into another messed-up rocker's violently unpredictable relationship with a sensation-seeking young woman.
Williamson, who already rocked "Hit the Wall" last year (in the Chicago produciton; they didn't take her to New York), is proving again here that she's one of the most powerful and courageous young actresses to hit the off-Loop theater in a long time. Oyloe is very provocative and intense in this role, but he remains a tad aloof from his character and self-protected. Williamson has no such boundaries, fusing together the kind of primal, intoxicating, wholly believable mix of sexuality, fear and despair (I could go on; there are many levels here). It puts you in mind of early Steppenwolf acting, or at least it would if that very notion of such nostalgia is not now cliched. Williamson is her own woman and a formidably vulnerable talent. And she's ably matched here by Burch, playing a character buried in layer after layer of repression. Burch in many ways has the harder assignment, but she nails this character with comparable intensity.
Aside from the other young musicians handing around Dorian (played, smartly and amusingly, by Nick Vidal and Chris Chmelik), the other character here is a music blogger named Ivy (Ashley Neal), whom Headland paints with a broader satiric brush. You can understand the temptation to skewer the young "tastemakers" who dine out and sleep around based on their page views and visibility to music executives (boy, can you) and Neal certainly has that over-achieving type down, but it goes a little far for a play that wants us to jump into so deep a hole with poor Dorian and June.
Still, at the Redtwist, jump we do. Aside from the unstinting quality of the direction, "Reverb" benefits from a potent lighting design from Brandon Wardell, illuminating Joe Schermoly's immersive setting of a rocker's cave, that goes much, much further than you usually get in a storefront like Redtwist. Any show with love scenes where you hear lines like "I want to suck the eyes out of your head" and it feels sweet and logical has created an echo chamber, all right.
When: Through June 30
Where: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 773-728-7529 or redtwist.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye