Playwright: Ben Lobpries
At: The House Theatre of Chicago at
The Storefront Theater at Gallery 37, 66 E. Randolph
Runs through: April 26
BY CATEY SULLIVAN
The lights are on, but no one's home.
So it is at the House Theatre of Chicago and the kinetic but oddly vacant Ellen Under Glass. Filled with inscrutable characters wearing faces of perpetual anguish as they thrash about like Isadora Duncan on an especially bad day, this pseudo-myth comes off as pretentious posturing. For a theater piece as thick with movement as this one, Ellen Under Glass feels static. Maybe that's because heavy-duty yet unidentifiable symbolism and/or unreadable subtext hangs like great leaden balloons from every word of dialogue and leap of dance. Or maybe it's because the choreography by Tommy Rapley ( who also directs ) is as repetitive as it is athletic, which is to say very.
A new work by Ben Lobpries, Ellen Under Glass plays out on an intriguing set dominated by ancient ( or ancient-looking ) window frames and doors. With their peeling paint and rusty knobs, the look is ghostly and surreal—and the best part of the production.
Also striking is the hybrid of blues and country music, primarily composed by Maria McCullough ( with one song by Porter Wagoner ) and performed with mournful, tuneful lushness by Eddie and the Panes ( McCullough, Lobpries, Devin Preitaur, Emily Spiegel and Mike Przygoda, masterfully blending a mix of fiddles, keyboard, percussion and vocals ) .
It's when the story overtakes the music that Ellen Under Glass gets into trouble. It begins with Ellen ( Carolyn Defrin, whose on-stage emotions range from devastated to profoundly unhappy ) , whom we learn is pregnant, having nightmares and about to be married to a man she doesn't love.
We can see she's deeply tormented because she's constantly hurling herself into the floor and writhing about while emoting as if she just ate ground glass. When Ellen goes through a mirror like Alice through the looking glass, she winds up on Black Mountain, which perhaps is purgatory, or—since a miscarriage as well as shrieking dreams of a dead baby crop up frequently—maybe Limbo, which every Catholic knows is where unbaptized babies go.
There, Ellen meets Joan of Arc, ( Paige Hoffman, whose costume seems designed to highlight her fabulously taut abs rather than reflect anything Joan of Arc-ian ) and Jezebel ( Dominica Wasilewska, looking like a disheveled version of Helen of Troy ) . The three are pursued over Black Mountain and encounter a trio of demons who hiss through hair that covers their eyes and flap around in tattery outfits that look like a full pot of coffee exploded all over them.
Chris Matthews plays Ellen's fiance and a denizen of Black Mountain. He's a terrific dancer, but he'd be more effective without the Bobby Sherman haircut and the foot-wide silver belt.
Bring back Valentine Victorious.