Regional Reviews: Chicago
Free beer and pizza were offered as we arrived in a meeting room at the Dank Haus German-American community center. The space was adorned with an array of beer neons, sports trophies and third-hand sofas positioned around the hall to resemble a slightly down-at-the-heels fraternity house. With a welcome from one of the cast members already in character who introduced himself as one of the brothers, I was back into the fraternity world, though my attire and pen-in-hand for notetaking made me feel more like Animal House's Dean Wormer than one of the brothers. Next time, I'm wearing my fraternity sweatshirt and a baseball cap.
Evan Linder's 90-minute play about college fraternity life focuses on one Hell Week of the fictitious Omega Pi Psi Fraternity at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Starting on the eve of the week in which the chapter's four pledges will be harassed, quizzed on fraternity history and deprived of sleep before the brothers vote them into full membership, the action moves, apart from a few flashbacks to the rush parties where the pledges were recruited and the bid ceremony where they were offered membership, to their initiation at the end of their Hell Week. My apprehensions about the show's authenticity based on its title (nobody in a fraternity actually calls one a "frat") were relieved in the first few minutes. Though my experience was in a different fraternity from Linder's, and further separated by three decades and a thousand miles, his observations couldn't have more in sync with my memories. The drill-sergeant intimidation, the KGB-like interrogations on fraternity history, the Greek alphabet and remembering brothers' names were all captured in perfect detail. The little mind games to make pledges believe they had failed and would not be initiated weren't the same tricks as ours, but they were similar enough.
The characters are instantly recognizable as fraternity archetypes. The pledge Todd (Quinn White) is the central figure, the one who's initially uninterested in joining but gets convinced to pledge and drags his skeptical slacker best friend Ross (Henry Riggs) with him. Among the brothers, Steven (Whit Nelson) is the empathetic pledge educator, a counterbalance to hard-ass Jerry (Gary Tiedemann) who takes too much pleasure in putting them through their paces during Hell Week. For a cast of 18 characters, including three girlfriends and a fourth female hanger-on, Linder manages to suggest, if not always fully develop, the characters beyond these stereotypes, most successfully with Todd and Ross. Beyond the shock of recognition of the hazing and party situations, Linder provides a good measure of funny lines in the casual conversation scenes, mostly of the young male put-down variety.
Adding to the environmental approach is the promenade staging by director Andrew Hobgood. The audience follows the performers around the room as the action moves between official fraternity events staged in the center of the space and the dorm room scenes happening on the old sofas placed around the room. Though it's not specifically participatory, there is occasional interaction with the characters as they cross paths with the audience, and it's easy to get caught up in the action if one doesn't move quickly, like the middle-aged woman who found herself between boyfriend and girlfriend characters on a sofa before politely moving out of their way. The performers use improv skills to have some fun with these moments.
This all works well enough as a fraternity version of the The Awesome '80s Prom. For its first two-thirds, that's about what it is, but then Linder takes a plot twist and makes us and his characters think about what's been going on. Is a fraternity really about buying friends, or is it a higher form of friendship than those which occur more organically, like the friendship of Todd and Ross? The answers aren't in this play, which focuses on the traditions and rituals the fraternity system uses to sustain itself and not so much on the everyday life that happens in between and in which the much touted friendships are built.
That would be a different play, though. This one is an affectionate satire of the theatrical nature of fraternity ritualsthe oversized acting out of faked outrage at pledge transgressions, and the costumes and lighting used to stage the hazing events. Frat's creative team and cast are close enough to this experience to depict it accurately, yet sufficiently removed to offer some perspective on it as well. Fraternity alumni visiting this Frat will enjoy the memories. Non-alums probably still won't get why anyone goes through a fraternity hazing, but they should still get a laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, and still be moved a little by the memory of a time when they were just trying to find a place and circle of friends where they would fit in.
Frat will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm at The Dank Haus at 4740 N Western Ave through April 4th. Show Passes, which allow the purchaser to see the show for which the Pass was purchased an unlimited number of times, are a suggested donation of $20. Passes available online at www.thenewcolony.org or by calling 800.838.3006.