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Chicago by John Olson

Hit the Wall
Greenhouse Theater Center

Also see John's review of Juno


Desmond Gray, Steve Casillas and Manny Buckley
Each of the characters claims to have been there when the Stonewall Riots occurred in June 1969, and each claims that accounts of what actually happened differ. That gives playwright Ike Holter, who wasn't born until some 16 years after the riots, license to create a fictional account—and the result is a history that feels absolutely truthful even if not demonstrably accurate. While Holter‘s characters may or may not resemble those who really were there, they sure look and feel like a representative sampling of the sorts of young people one might find around the gay bar scene today, and in that way Holter has connected the uprising that is said to have sparked the gay rights movement to the LGBT community of today. And, with the help of director Eric Hoff and a sensational cast, he's created just a damn good piece of theater.

Sticking closely with the facts that are known, Holter borrows a little from the setup of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing, following his characters from early on a New York summer's day that is just insufferably hot. Lots else is insufferable as well. There's the prejudice toward cross-dressers that ostracizes a drag queen attending Judy Garland's wake on the Upper East Side, a Lesbian runaway's desperation after losing her job and her wallet, and police brutality on the street in the hours before the infamous raid on the West Village gay bar the Stonewall Inn. Their individual stories unfold through monologues, realistic scenes, and musical numbers by a three-piece band. They come together in raucous ensemble action as tightly choreographed (by Erin Kilmurray) as a good musical production number. Under Hoff's direction, these disparate performing styles somehow blend seamlessly in an unabashed theatricality that somehow transports us back to that time and place even with its highly presentational performance style. The skill of this writer and director are simply awe-inspiring.

Hit the Wall, originally produced by a company called The Inconvenience, premiered two years ago as part of Steppenwolf's Garage Rep—an annual event in which the company hosts three emerging companies for performances in Steppenwolf's black box Garage Theater. It quickly became an impossible to get ticket. There was a one-weekend revival at Chicago's Theater on the Lake that summer and then a brief Off-Broadway run with a mostly new cast the next spring. The Chicago Commercial Collective has remounted the piece with most of the original Chicago cast for a two-month run and, with six shows per week, more Chicago audiences will finally get to see it.

The returning cast members include Manny Buckley as the drag queen Carson. Totally convincing as a woman, vulnerable as a man, Buckley shows great range in playing his character's confidence and style when in drag, from her gradual surrender to the romantic overtures of the drifter Cliff (in a nuanced portrayal by Steve Lenz) to her near defeat at the hands of an abusive cop, and through her ultimate defiance. The cop is given a multi-layered performance by Walter Briggs, who shows some humanity in the man even as he is a representative of the oppressor. Sara Kerastas' Peg is a butch lesbian, tough but truly frightened about her situation. Her angst is palpable.

The aforementioned characters are basically the heart of the piece, but they're supported by others who serve important purposes although they're less fully developed. There's Desmond Gray and Steve Casillas (replacing Arturo Soria of the original Chicago and the New York cast) as two effeminate gay teens many blocks from home who hang out in the Village all day and all night. Their bon mots and putdowns of the targets who cross in front of them provide much of the play's abundant wit, though Casillas' character gets his moment of defiance before play's end as well. Daniel Desmarais plays the sweetly naïve "Newbie,"—a teen making his first steps into the gay scene at this most auspicious moment. Shannon Matesky plays the oh-so-confident lesbian activist Roberta, created by Holter as a standard-issue Latina firebrand, but Matesky makes the most of it. Layne Manzer plays "A-Gay," an affluent and somewhat older guy who seeks out younger guys for encounters he insists will last no more than an hour. Mary Williamson plays two steely establishment women who find themselves unexpectedly exposed to this foreign counter-cultural scene.

With these diverse group of characters—Latinas, blacks, Lesbians, and poor teens—Holter adds another layer to this historical story. Whether or not the participants of the actual event were that diverse, this cast of characters suggests that the struggle (and the gains that have been earned through it over the past 45 years) belong to all these groups. The gay rights struggle is akin to the battles for marginalized people of all sorts, even though it may not always have been seen as such even within the gay community. In a later scene, A-Gay says to the Latino Tano (Casillas) and African-American Mika (Gray), "things were good before you got here."

Hoff's production has an environmental feel, with the audience walking through a graffiti-covered corridor (by set designer John Holt) to arrive at their seats, where they're greeted by the three-piece band of musical director John Cicora, Ryan Murphy and Josh Lambert playing hits of the '60s. It's a club-like party scene that, with the help of lighting designers Jeff Glass and Cassie Mings, feels like the real thing. And sound designers Joe Court and Matt Chapman deliver the music at the volume that is convincingly loud without being deafening. Coral Gable's costumes are realistic enough to take us back to the summer of '69.

Holter's script has an unusual, but effective arc. The events of that hot summer day build up to the riot, frighteningly staged by fight choreographer Ryan Bourque, then quiet down in the riot's aftermath before building the energy to suggest that more fighting—over the next few nights, but also in the many years following—was ahead.

Across town, Chicago's American Theater Company has revived the seminal '60s rock musical Hair (and revised it with the help of co-author James Rado). Hit the Wall shares a time (late 1960s) and place (New York's Greenwich Village) with that musical as well as the same energy and performance styles. Though written 45 years after, it deserves the same classic status as a document of that era in which so many actions altered the course of history.

Hit the Wall will play the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Abe., Chicago, through June 29, 2014. For ticket information, visit www.greenhousetheater.org or call 773-404-7336.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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