Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Our Bad Magnet/A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant

Douglas Maxwell's Our Bad Magnet, running now at Mary Arrchie, ends on a uplifting moment of floral sentimentality. After weaving in and out of three decades with a quartet of young Scottish pals and being hinted everywhere from ghost story to detective tale to sobering domestic abuse fable, Maxwell kicks open the trap door beneath our emotions, dropping us directly in front of the light at the end of the nostalgic tunnel. I left the theatre with a warm feeling that lasted a good hour or so, which was about the point I really started thinking about the play again and notice just how little finality we're given despite the "Everything's Gonna Be Okay" tinged ending.

The story revolves around three friends meeting up at their hometown at the age of 29 largely because of some dealings regarding a odd duck storyteller fourth who they befriended at the age of 9 and who may or may not have killed himself at 19. As scenes from all three ages intermingle, we pick up bits and pieces of the bigger picture: harrowing home lives, deeper connections, intra- and extramarital affairs, shady business dealings. It's a great set up for a cubist exploration of the transition from young to young adult and on again to adult and the building and breaking of relationships that progress necessitates. But Maxwell has his heart on telling a story, dammit, and sets himself across the poles from his storyteller protagonist of sorts by insisting that the story of Our Bad Magnet bow up all nice and pretty at the end.

Of course, it doesn't, or rather shouldn't, and even though the playwright has the perfect bow picked out and placed on top, it only serves to cheapen an otherwise intricately explored world. It also goes to show that honest/earnest performances (as this cast puts in across the board) can only mask disingenuity in writing for so long before the foundation falters.


A Red Orchid's A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is the type of show begging to fall into half a dozen different pitfalls and yet this production manages to sidestep almost all of them without a second glance. There's no false advertising here; a group of ten youngsters are really going on nightly in a theatre whose usual bill of fare is one of the least likely in Chicago to come under the heading 'child-friendly'. These kids are all at that age of full ripeness -- that junior highish phase where humans learn to lie, cheat, and steal but aren't yet bitter enough to hide their enthusiasm for it -- and through their self-awareness threaten to render every inch of this show another inch for them to grab attention. But co-directors Lance Baker and Steve Wilson perform nothing short of the impossible in herding them to effectivity. Instead of attempting to stifle these kids into the square hole of theatre, Baker and Wilson utilize each individual Look At Me tendency smoothly towards the show's purpose (let the muggers mug, let the straight (wo)men go unfliched, let the girl with the Heelys wheel, etc.).

And as a result, instead of child actor hell in which focus is drawn so many directions it snaps, we get a show that understands that, yes, poking fun at L. Ron Hubbard is a good time, but the success of the evening relies on the fact that, the kids ARE the focus, and lets the jokes serve them rather than the other way around. We all know the punchlines and we all know where this game is headed (although, in the reverse of Our Bad Magnet, Very Merry Scientology adds a last minute turn of emotion that sits very nicely), but we don't know where these little punks are going to go to get us there. It's a lot of fun finding out.


Busy weekend -- Six Degrees of Separation and Soiree DADA are both closing Saturday night, and on Sunday I'm driving to Indianapolis to see my once roommate in Indiana Repertory's A Christmas Carol. Also on the pre-Christmas planner: in celebration of the day of my birth, on Tuesday the 23rd I'm catching closing night of The Neo-Futurists' A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol and then hopping around the block to Konak for a birthday bash with the tiny smattering of folk still in town despite the holiday. Feel free to stop by, I'd love to have you!


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