Act(s) of God
At the Lookingglass Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – It’s been a while since a really controversial play opened locally, a play that will thrill some viewers and send others irate into the night. “Act(s) of God” at the Lookingglass Theatre could be such a play. It would be interesting to take a straw poll of the audience after each performance. How many people loved the show, how many liked it with reservations, and how many were baffled and irritated.
“Act(s) of God” is written by Lookingglass company member Kareem Bandealy. Broadly, the play touches on religious faith and more specifically provides a scorching portrait of a family that is dysfunctional to the max. The show runs three acts, shifting dramatic gears practically from scene to scene. There are white hot realistic moments and there are moments that feel like a Theater of the Absurd exercise by Eugene Ionesco from the 1950’s. The spectator with a literal mind will likely be frustrated. Viewers willing to go with the flow of the play will be fascinated, even if they depart the Lookingglass with their heads filled with unanswered questions.
The play is set in the year 2029. The site is the home of a family, apparently somewhere in the American desert. There is some reference to an asteroid that just missed the earth, sparing life on our planet, but nothing much is made of the potential life-ending disaster. The family is not identified by personal names. They are called Mother, Father, Youngest, Middle, and Eldest. The final character, at least visible to the audience, is the Fiancée of Middle. The adult children are returning home for a family celebration. Mother is a religious zealot, denomination unspecified. Father is an amiable type who cedes the authority of the family to his wife.
Some of the opening act is spent watching the family engage in some kind of religious ritual. The only outsider is Eldest, a 40ish woman who is an assertive atheist, gay, and has a giant chip on her shoulder when it comes to connecting with her siblings and parents. The family receives a mysterious letter that the parents and the two younger children are unable to open. Finally Eldest casually opens the envelope and inside there is a single sheet of blank paper that Mother and the other believers are convinced is a message from God. Mother is convinced God is a woman and she determines that the deity will arrive for dinner the following evening, creating quite a stir in the household.
Someone does show up for dinner as scheduled, but whether it is God or a hobo seizing the opportunity for a free meal is up for discussion. The figure never appears on stage but has questionable hygiene habits. In the second and third acts, the question of the visitor’s provenance as God is set aside as the family start tearing each other apart with a set of grievances so intense that the play makes “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” seem like Peter Rabbit. Eldest and Mother and Middle go through a furious round robin of insults and accusations that would be hair raising in real life but on the stage have an irresistible ferocious eloquence.
Near the end of the second act, the Fiancée is turned off by all the family bile and walks out, her presence not really missed by the audience. In the final act, the audience will do most of its head scratching. Near the end of the play with stagehands walking on and off stage in full audience view, removing the set’s furniture and wall decorations, ignored by the characters who are working themselves into a frenzy of acrimony toward each other. Only the Father keeps his emotions under control, sleeping in an armchair on stage throughout the second act and spending many minutes in the final act narrating a religious parable that seemed to have no point. After the stagehands carry away his armchair, Father still tries to sit down, flopping on his back each time.
During the second intermission, ushers alerted patrons in the first few rows that there would be strong wind effects in the final act and to batten down their drinks and loose papers. That windstorm turned out to be the startling drop of a long cloth curtain from the rafters that landed about a foot from me in the first row. I wasn’t hurt but I was a little shaken. But by that time the production seemed to enter an “anything goes” mode. In the final moments, the family is curled up on the now empty stage, looking exhausted and maybe as confused as members of the audience.
There were other moments that might give spectators pause. The first act ends with Mother suddenly bursting into an operatic aria which I think was a litany of complaints about something or other. It is the only musical moment in the show but gives Shannon Cochran, who is brilliant throughout, a chance to exhibit her singing chops. The mysterious dinner guest apparently served his purpose by the end of the second act and plays no further important part in the narrative.
The audience may be at a loss following the various plot turns and mood shifts, but the Lookingglass actors look and sound like they know exactly what is going on. Director Heidi Stillman keeps the action fluent, realism and fantasy smoothly coexisting. Likewise the characters move through the drama with no awareness that they exist in a story that thrives on the irrational. Spectators may have no answers for the behavior on stage but the characters, angry and bitter as they may be, move smoothly within their own reality.
Along with Shannon Cochran, the outstanding ensemble consists of Rom Barkhordar (Father), Walter Briggs (Youngest), Emjoy Gavino (Fiancée), Anthony Irons (Middle), and Kristina Valada-Viars (Eldest). First among equals is Valada-Viers for her volcanic performance as an unhappy woman moving in a cocoon of personal outrage.
This is Bandealy’s first major play and he demonstrates a dazzling way with words. Bandealy knows how to create full-blooded characters and amid all the verbal and physical uproar of “Act(s) of God” he can be very funny. His play will test the tolerance of viewers who insist the playwright should say with he means without all the ”huh” plot twists and thematic ambiguities. Still, this work needs to be seen by any adventurous playgoer. Let’s cut Bandealy some slack on the thematic and narrative absurdities and enjoy the product of a challenging new writer on the drama scene unafraid to tackle big topics in his own distinctive creative style. As to what the play’s title signifies, your guess is as good as mine.
“Act(s) of God” gets a rating of
“Act(s) of God” runs through April 7 at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 North Michigan Avenue at the Water Tower Water Works. Most performances are Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $75. Call 312 337 0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. February 2019
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