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Chicago by John Olson

Hellcab
Profiles Theatre

Also see John's review of Sister Act

Hellcaab
Joseph W. Moore III, Khalil Lesaldo,
Rebecca Julia Brown and Konstantin Khrustov

Hellcab< has a legendary status in Chicago theater. A production of the now-defunct off-Loop company Famous Door Theatre, this 1992 play by Will Kern exceeded its originally announced run of 12 performances by ten years, becoming a late night fixture. It also spawned a 1999 independent feature film titled Chicago Cab with a cast that included Michael Shannon, Laurie Metcalf and John Cusack.

Hellcab follows one day in the life of a Chicago cabbie—Christmas Eve Day, at that—and introduces the audience to 33 passengers and acquaintances he encounters throughout the day. A play requiring a cast of 34 would usually be considered unproduceable for all except school productions unless the actors take on multiple roles, and Hellcab has, according to director Darrell W. Cox, previously been performed by casts of only six actors. The trouble with that approach is it can draw focus to the artistry of the actors rather engage us with the characters themselves. For this production, Cox has cast 34 different actors—one for each role. It makes the play a rich and real-feeling mosaic of recognizable big city characters, but at the same time it's a tribute to this theatre community—one of the few anywhere that could pull off something like this.

I missed Hellcab in its initial run in Chicago, though I lived here during the last four years of it. It was a late night show and marketed as an outrageous comedy, so somehow it struck me as a tourist-friendly and skippable piece. The fact is, it's great theatre—an 80 minute one-act play with something like 40 short scenes (there are some monologues for the driver and a repeat appearance of one of the passengers) that depict a range of typical city people who take cabs and the situations that bring them to do so. The passengers range from born-again Christians to partying young drug addicts, business professionals, the sex obsessed and professionals who are sex-obsessed. The situations range from life-altering to the mundane. It's edgy, to be sure, and most of it quite funny, but it's also frightening at points and ultimately touching. Kern initially views the fares with a bemused detachment, but not objects of ridicule and, as the play progresses, he (and we) begin to see their humanity more fully.

So much of their lives and personalities is revealed in the few minutes they share in the cab with the driver because of the ways the passengers view the driver. He's either a non-person to be ignored or disregarded, or just the opposite—a father-confessor, a potential sexual conquest, an ally. Either attitude leads them to reveal more about themselves than would normally be considered acceptable in other social situations. Both attitudes toward the driver are inappropriate and add to the driver's loneliness, even as he is in constant interaction with others. Kern tells us little about the driver—he's apparently single, has moved to Chicago from Rockford to find work, seems physically worn-down by the long hours (and the December Chicago temperatures), and is a decent guy who views his fares with more humanity than they do him. In this production, he's also of Russian descent—apparently to match the ethnicity of the actor who plays him.

As the driver, Konstantin Khrustov is on stage the whole 80 minutes and is amazingly able to gain our attention as the central figure and lay back and let the colorful passengers stand out in relief. He opens the play with a bit of physical business in which he's trying to open the cab door, then get the vehicle started on this cold December morning. Through the course of the day, he's alternately indifferent to the proceedings, scared, shocked, frustrated, angry, saddened and, finally, reaffirmed. He's a guy struggling to feel a part of the world even while he's so immersed in it and Khrustov does great work in communicating all these facets of the driver who is loathe to reveal much of himself to the passengers.

There's not a weak link among the remaining 33 players in the cast. Cox has assembled a non-Equity ensemble that includes many actors new to the Chicago theater community along with some who have significant credits. With his two assistant directors, Eric Burgher and Harmony France, Cox has crafted 33 distinct and highly entertaining characters that pass through Khrustov's cab. It's hard to single anyone out—not least because the company has (intentionally or not) discouraged that by not listing in the program the characters played by each actor. The performances range from the tightly controlled, understated naturalism of Jin You as a buttoned-up female attorney, to the flamboyant transvestite of Aaron Holland and her abusive boyfriend (Anthony John Lawrence Apodaca). There are comically subtle performances of a Christian couple; bigger and louder characters like a drunken woman, oversexed female attorney, and a pair of obnoxious Chicago Cub-hating young New York guys; and two very quiet and sensitive performances at the end of the play of a rape victim and a young architect just going out for takeout food. The whole group deserves props and the complete cast is listed below.

On Shaun Renfro's set, the action takes place in and around a cut-away cab, with graffiti by Anthony Venturini adorning the house walls at right angles behind the playing area. (The audience is seated along the other two sides of the square configuration). Raquel Adorno designed the 34 realistic costumes that help the actors quickly establish character. The production design complements Kern's keen skills of observation and geographic accuracy when identifying the places around town in which the action occurs, making this a highly credible and resonant piece for local audiences. Undoubtedly, though, the success the piece has realized around the world can confirm that it would play well for anyone familiar enough with big city milieus.

Still, the Chicago location and the work of this very fine cast and team make it a special holiday gift to local audiences. While it doesn't take too many theatergoing experiences here to appreciate the depth of the talent in the local market, this production of Hellcab shows just how deep the bench is. Only in Chicago, it seems, would there be so many solid actors itching to work with a company of Profiles' reputation, to put on the show of this scope and quality.

The cast includes Konstantin Khrustov as the driver, with the passenger roles performed by Anthony John Lawrence Apodaca, Dennis Bisto, Rebecca Julia Brown, Maryann Carlson, Chris Carr, Eric J. Ciak, Alex Fisher, LJ Flora, Jeff Gamlin, Carly Jo Geer, Philena Gilmer, Charles Glenn, Rob Grabowski, Desmond Gray, Aaron Holland, Khalil Lesaldo, Kaitlyn Majoy, Jack McCabe, Christopher McMorris, Katrina V. Miller, Stephanie Monday, Joseph W. Moore III, Todd Neal, Brennan Roche, Sarai Rodriguez, Andrew L. Saenz, Sheridan Singleton, Adam Soule, Aaron Spencer, Elise Spoerlein, Scott Stockwell, Rachel Weeks and Jin You.

Hellcab will be performed through December 23, 2012, at the Profiles Theatre Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.profilestheatre.org or call 773-549-1815.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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