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Chicago by John Olson

pool (no water)
The Vitalists
Greenhouse Theater Center
Guest Reviewer Richard Green

pool
Clockwise from top: Todd Michael Kiech, Ann Sheridan Smith, Antonio Brunetti and
Meghan Reardon

The first rule of thumb here seems to be (if you've built-up an artists' colony, and then you're suddenly gravely ill) "never let a bunch of young British artists into a cancer ward."

The second rule, which follows naturally from the first is, "always let a bunch of young British artists into a cancer ward."

Mark Ravenhill's 2005 play is set in the frantic 1980s British arts scene—or, more specifically, in a huge swimming pool, populated by four artists—and boasts more physical action than a bonus round of pinball. The story is often ruthless, but, even when things go horribly wrong, there is no embarrassing "American" moment where the characters have to account for their inexplicable misdeeds, though there are plenty of moments where they are horrified to be caught. Even when the whole thing races toward an appalling new artistic "event," they are just ever so slightly calculating in hopes of a big breakthrough success. Thanks, for all the unexpected honesty of all that, to director Liz Carlin Metz.

The third rule here seems to be that (even for the non-believer) religion—and rebellion—may be hardwired into the human spirit. The artists' powerful patron is never up there "live" on stage in the course of the action, but she does appear eventually, like Jesus on a tortilla shell: ghostly and grim in expert video montages (arranged by Michael Stanfill), the patron of 1980s AIDS babies and other formidable causes they've all taken on. But the strain of helping the hopeless takes its toll, and that's where the real story begins.

The four have more than a dash of a Sid & Nancy nihilism, that partly feeds off their growing resentment of the sick and the dying, who seem to have found a way out of the unbearable overload of living. And yet the artists, for all that resentment, are satisfyingly self-aware—to the point where they know they really do like living under the protection of their patron, helping with her charities, even as they chafe under their aquarium-like captivity.

It's hard to single out individual performances, as the work originated as a one-person narration, eventually split into four parts, with all four characters telling the same story. But Antonio Brunetti provides that "high-style European artist" feeling, Anne Sheridan Smith has a great little moment talking about the doom of notoriety, and Todd Michael Kiech and Meghan Reardon show plenty of the pain and pathology that begs for some kind of healing waters, though (of course) they're always stuck in that empty pool.

If you're too young to remember the "scandal" attached to artists of the day, like Robert Mapplethorpe, suffice it to say an entire arts movement might not have succeeded so well without an equally showy sort of conservatism that thrived at the same time, and did far worse things than what these four characters nearly get away with. And, funnily enough, they solve their own scandalous problem just the same way as any real conservative would.

But it all starts on that glorious day when their benefactor surprises them with a swimming pool at her estate, and the promise of one endless swimming party, until the accident, until the cancer ward. After that, the play cuts loose, tearing itself open, and gives birth to a mad riot of scheming for glory, bathing in fear, and trying to escape. The dominant mood is thrilling, even in its darkest moments—but how can you not love a play that sends your mind, churning like an Olympic swimmer, across the glittering silence of water?

By the author of Shopping and Fucking, pool (no water) runs through September 30, 2012c at the Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. For information call (773) 404-7336 or visit them on-line at www.vitaliststheatre.org.

Ensemble
Antonio Brunetti, Kathleen Donoghue, Todd Michael Kiech, Meghan Reardon, Ann Sheridan Smith

Crew
Director: Liz Carlin Metz
Contact Improvisational Coach: Jeff Wallace
Stage Manager: Kathleen Dickinson
Assistant Stage Manager: Kat Reiser
Producing Assistant Director: Adam McDowell
Technical Director: Eli King
Master Electrician: Ivy Reid
Sound and Video Board Operator: Kat Reiser
Costume Consultant: Margo Shively
Knox College Interns: Michael Smid, Kat Reiser, Abby Harms, Ivy Reid, J. Keegan Seibken


Photo: Anthony Aicardi

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-- John Olson



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