Come for the roller derby, stay for portrait of a small town

The entrance to the Red Tape Theatre in Lakeview was guarded Tuesday night by a rather foreboding young woman dressed as a referee. "Are you here for the roller derby," she asked a clutch of suitably intimidated new arrivals, "or for church?"

Since Red Tape actually is located inside the St. Peter's Episcopal Church, she actually wasn't kidding about the church part. And in the pitch-perfect gymnasium constructed upstairs, there really were 11 roller girls, all on real skates, all doing an entire two-act show on wheels. They are only part of the huge cast, but they're quite the wild crew of roller chicks, as the lingo has it, skating around the audience's ankles. And they come replete with aggressive stage names like Maul of the Wild, Harlot O'Scara, Jailhouse Block, and, my personal favorite of the printable ones, Blood Bath and Beyond. You might get your ankles clipped, but you won't be bored for a second.

Any time you put actresses on wheels, you suggest parody in the "Xanadu" tradition. But The New Colony, which has the rare and worthy distinction in the Chicago theater world of invariably doing shows totally unlike anything you have seen before, actually has loftier ambitions for its latest original creation. "Down & Derby" is an ensemble-created piece, shepherded by the young writer Aaron Weissman, the director Thrisa Hodits and the movement director Katie Spelman.

The team at the center of the story, the Misfit Mavericks, is from fictional Larkin City, Ohio, which has just suffered the trauma of a terrible storm — a rather resonant theme on Tuesday night — and is trying to pick up the pieces of its small-town life. The women who make up the Mavericks are working-class gals, struggling to make a buck, hold down their day jobs and find a way through life's bumps and falls. And it's this aspect of the show that (aside from the sheer fun of the fully immersive setup) makes it well worth seeing. The women in the cast (some of whom have really worked the roller-derby circuit) are totally believable as a team of hard-bitten roller chicks from a small Ohio town. They spend much of the show sporting variations of a scowl as they fight among themselves, try to decide what kind of team they want to be, and navigate the tricky zone between becoming pros and maybe objectifying themselves or being exploited — or using their collective girrl-power to help their stricken community.

In its best moments, the show reveals the attractions of showbiz escape, even as it makes clear its characters are painfully ill-equipped to cope with any of that stuff.

"Down & Derby" is penned as a small-town story and that's exactly the way it plays. Most shows about sports fail to actually show you the sport (this one sure does, blocks, falls and all). Or they get involved in huge, mythic triumphs and defeats; (this one never suggests that the Mavericks ever will amount to much). Or they wander into cliche (not here). "Down & Derby" is actually quite poignant. Every so often, one of the refs rolls out a little platform on wheels and you get a little slice of mobile hyper-realism showing you one of the women with, say, their alcoholic dad at home, or some such vista. These are all acted in that intensely naturalistic style for which New Colony, which already has exported its "5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche" to New York this fall, has become known.

But if you go to this roller-derby, you'll quickly see that it has some major bumps. The first act does not have an end, and, for a show that actually contains so much racing, it is bizarre indeed that it dribbles to a close without a big on-rink finish (although I had a certain respect for the defiance of that). There are lags in the action and creaks in the story and, due to the acoustics in the gym, not every line pops as it should. Too much remains woolly and not fully defined dramatically. This crew really has to keep working on this thing. (I kept thinking, frankly, that this would make a great musical, but that would be something else entirely.) Right now, the company needs to sharpen the storytelling, deepen the characters, raise the stakes and up the pace.

So you'll have to put up with some flaws. But in return for your 20 bucks, you get a memorable, Chicago-style live experience that manages both to be highly entertaining and deeply committed to respecting a certain kind of gruff reality. The sight of this huge clump of full-on skaters, racing around the room inches from the audience, slamming each other against the walls with collective jaws set, is worth the price of admission alone. But the real appeal here is that you also feel like you're also seeing their roiled-up insides, churning alongside you in the gym.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Dec. 8

Where: Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Tickets: $20 at 773-413-0862 or thenewcolony.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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