Regional Reviews: Chicago
Joe Schermoly's scenic design deserves first mention for its transformation of the Raven Theatre's Schwartz Stage. The proscenium of the low stage establishes an octagonal frame, placing the audience itself on the surface of Solaris itself. Just upstage a pair of partial doors slide on a track to obscure or reveal various parts of the stage, lending the tiny space a maze-like, claustrophobic feel that is appropriately evocative of an all-but-abandoned space station on the edge of the galaxy.
Each paneled wall opens on a closet that houses props and various kinds of equipment. A low bed slides out from the stage-right wall to create the protagonist's cramped cabin, and from the stage-left wall a work surface folds out to suggest the observation deck from which the skeleton crew listens to the rhythms of the ocean planet.
Against the stark white surface of the set, Yeaji Kim's gorgeous, hypnotic projections bring the planet's pulsating collective consciousness to life, and the unnerving character of her found footage of the station's recently deceased Doctor Gibarian is critical in maintaining the unsettled atmosphere that drives the narrative. All of this is adeptly augmented by the fine-tuned sound and lighting design of Eric Backus and Brandon Wardell, respectively. The result, under Weinstein's tightly paced direction, is a story of loss, memory and possibility that's delightfully easy to become immersed in.
Grieg's adaptation strips the cast down to six: three scientists, Doctors Sartorius and Snow, who are both approaching the end of a multi-year stint on the station; the newly arrived Doctor Kelvin; a mysterious, silent child; and eventually, Ray, Kelvin's long-dead lover whom the planet has conjured up in an attempt to make contact with the crew. Griffin follows other productions of Grieg's version in casting women in the roles of Kelvin and Sartorius, in contrast to the male actors in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film, as well as Steven Soderbergh's 2002 incarnation.
Isa Arciniegas is outstanding as Kris Kelvin. In the brief period of time the play gives the actor to establish the character before the madness sets in, Arciniegas hits the humorous beats of disbelief perfectly in Kelvin's initial encounter with Snow, and later she just as capably sells how it is that such a grounded, capable individual could become so quickly entangled in the planet's psychological manipulations. Even more importantly, she makes it clear to the audience how it is that the character could so long entertain the self-delusion that her dealings with "Ray" were nothing more than faithful execution of her professional duties as the mission's de facto psychologist.
Neither Snow nor Sartorius is as well-developed a character as Kelvin, and to be sure, the impressionistic sketches that Grieg offers of each present a challenge to the actors undertaking the roles. Nonetheless, TJ Thomas and Nicole Laurenzi, respectively, are up to their assigned tasks.
Thomas has particular skill in coming at Snow's material sideways not just to play the comedy that Grieg sows throughout the dialogue, but to add a layer of whistling-in-the-graveyard funny that's remarkably effective when interweaved with his character's macabre fascination with documenting the horrifying goings-on as circumstances on the station proceed from bad to worse.
Laurenzi has the arguably more difficult task of conveying some of the play's murkier plot points and messaging. As Snow warns Kelvin from the outset, Sartorius's attitude toward the planet, and indeed toward the crew's entire mission, has turned aggressively hostile. She is adamant that Ray and the child–who turns out to be an imperfect recreation of her deceased daughter–are nothing more than psychological projections. And even as the evidence mounts that the two are, in some sense, real, Laurenzi renders it not only believable that her character would cling to the belief that they are, instead, "either meaningless or malevolent," but she convinces the audience that it might be so along the way. This is crucial to maintaining the exploratory nature of the text, rather than allowing it to devolve into a deep-space who-done-it that might or might not involve a monster.
As Ray, John Drea takes a layered, intriguing approach. He plays the character in a broad, rather childlike way early on, such that the audience is never quite certain whether any given incarnation is Kelvin's imperfect, idealized mental image of him, or simply the planet's collective consciousness learning how to build a better human with each iteration.
Appearing only in videos, Larry Baldacci hews close to the well-worn scifi character of the agent mentor who never quite manages to convey they key piece of information to the protagonist before it's too late. However, Baldacci never veers into caricature, and he is particularly haunting in the revelations that come in his later scenes.
Solaris runs through March 27, 2022, at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago IL. Masking and proof of vaccination are required for audience members, though protocols are subject to change closer to the date of the event. For tickets and information, visit www.griffintheatre.com or call 773-338-2177.