Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Jackalope Theatre Company
Review by John Olson|

Julian Parker, Sydney Charles, Andrew Goetten,
and Donovan Diaz

Photo by Joel Maisonet
Chicago, as you most certainly have heard, is experiencing an epidemic of gun violence that is increasingly alarming to those of us living in safer areas and terrifying to those in the middle of it. And this is a city with a reputation for violence that goes back nearly to its founding in 1833! It would be easy to write a play decrying this violence—much more difficult to write one that adds to the conversation without being preachy or restating the obvious. Ike Holter, arguably Chicago's hottest playwright of the past several years, has accomplished such a challenge with Prowess, is genre-bending, alternately hilarious and frightening, and simply exhilarating play in a world premiere production at Jackalope Theatre Company. Through its four thoroughly original inner-city dwelling characters and a plot that, like Disney's theme park ride Space Mountain, never lets you know exactly where the next turn or free fall will be, it forces the audience to face up to the issue of urban violence.

The play opens in the office of an inner-city alderman where staffer Zora (Sydney Charles) is welcoming Mark (Julian Parker), a martial arts trainer she found on Craig's List. Things begin in almost romcom fashion (though funnier than most romcoms) as the two navigate trust issues. Is Mark a legitimate trainer? What are Zora's motives for learning martial arts? The tone shifts quickly when we learn her reasons. She was brutally attacked on an elevated train nearly two years ago, in a case so publicized she's known as the "girl on the Red Line" (the Chicago Transit Area's elevated and subway train that runs 23.4 miles from the crime-ridden south side through downtown and up to the northern city limits). Holter has a way of turning tone on a dime—from funny to frightening, threatening to loving. Mark tells Zora he can teach her to defend herself, but if she's thinking of revenge to forget it. And this leads to the main question Holter asks in this play: What are we going to do about this violence? Focus on self-defense for personal survival? Fight back—with more violence?

Two more characters are introduced. Mark runs into a masked tagger who has a unique way to respond to the tragedies—by painting graffiti reading OMFG ("Oh my fucking God") at the sites of violent incidents. The tagger, Jax (Donovan Diaz), is a shadowy figure, his face covered with a fume-blocking mask and goggles, and he soon shows himself to be a capable physical fighter himself. Though he claims to decry violence, he's quite good at it himself. Finally, we meet Andy (Andrew Goetten), a young white man from the suburbs who has moved to this inner-city neighborhood and is apparently a co-worker of Zora's in the alderman's office. He's interested in learning martial arts along with Zora and, like her, has strong personal reasons for doing so. He lost four friends who were fatally shot as bystanders in a convenience store robbery.

All four seem to suffer from PTSD to some level. Mark, it turns out, is a former gang member who was traumatized by that experience and is determined to do something to make a difference. Though his original intention is to train others for self-defense, he sees an opportunity to strike back against one of the most heinous gangs in the neighborhood. The gang lives in a house with a perimeter heavily guarded by members during the day, but Mark says it would be possible to enter the building at night by jumping on its roof from an elevated train platform. They could attack the sleeping gangbangers and beat them brutally, then call the police to come in and make arrests. Following a montage of training scenes taking place over several months, we see Zora and Andy turn into accomplished fighters under Mark's tutelage. With Jax joining the foursome, they decide to attempt their vigilante raid, and we see the four jump off the L train just before the lights dim to end the first act.

The plot, as you may have sensed from all this, is more "possible" than "plausible," but that seems Holter's intention. He deftly creates a story that's partly hero-fantasy, but grounded in reality. Through some very smart work from her design team, director Marti Lyons brings us into an inner-city community in the small and rough performance space Jackalope uses within a Chicago Parks District building. Lighting designer Michael Stanfill and sound designer Matthew Chapman put us in the middle of a drive-by shooting that feels real in spite of the lack of a real car. Courtney O'Neill starts with the bare walls and support columns of the space to provide a deceptively simple set that takes us to the alderman's office, a rooftop, an apartment building doorstep and an L train. Samantha Jones' costumes nail the urban look of the characters. Projections designed by Stanfill are alternately realistic and impressionistic, bringing us into the real-life environment some 15-20 miles to the south of the theater, both literally and viscerally, through their sheer kinetic energy and the help of Chapman's score.

The estimable design skill notwithstanding, it's Lyons's cast of four who make us willing to take this ride and there's not a weak link among them. They're all relatively equal in importance and each proves capable of landing comic lines one minute and switching to moods of grief and fear the next. Sydney Charles as Zora is perhaps the most central, as it's her character that sets the story in motion. Zora's pain is palpable and her determination fierce. Parker gives a marvelously nuanced performance as Mark, who, though expert in martial arts and a former gangbanger, seems essentially a gentle soul. Diaz's Jax is both a fighter and (unexpectedly) a lover, and the one most knowledgeable and grounded in the ways of the street. And, finally, special kudos must be given to Andrew Goetten, who stepped in the role of Andy on just days notice following an injury to Andrew Burden Swanson, the actor originally cast in the role. This is not to make excuses for Goetten—none are needed. He fully inhabits his character who is the most na├»ve and vulnerable of the four. Along with his castmates, he has mastered the considerable amount of fight choreography by Ryan Bourque that includes both training scenes and convincing assaults.

Based on this play and his Hit the Wall, Holter has a distinctive voice that might be described as heightened realism. It sounds like people actually talk, but just a bit smarter and more theatrical. His dialogue is brutally funny and uncompromisingly raw. He has a strong collaborator for this show in director Lyons, who expertly guides the four-person cast through the many segments of overlapping dialogue and the abrupt but justified shifts in tone and pace. The funny stuff lands and the key emotional moments have power as directed by this theatrical maestro. Lyons brilliantly pulls together Holter's sharp, rapid-fire dialogue with the elements of fight choreography and video projections into a brilliant and stunning whole.

It may seem unlikely to the reader that all this stuff can be thrown together and still work, but it does. Audiences should resist the temptation to view Prowess through a lens of any one genre. This is something different, combining heightened reality if not outright fantasy. Holter throws us right into the middle of an existential problem we would much rather avoid facing. He asks one final time before we leave the theater—what are we going to do about urban violence?

Prowess will run through June 25, 2016, at the Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway, Chicago. For more information or tickets, visit