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Theater: The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
2007-03-14

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Playwright: Rolin Jones

At: Collaboraction Theatre at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago

Phone: 312-226-9633; $25

Runs through: April 1

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

Move over, Johnny Mnemonic! Cyberspace has a new computer cowboy and her name is Jennifer Marcus. She's a 22-year-old agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive, California-raised brainiac who trembles in the throes of hormonal overdrive; bounces to the backbeat of her internal rock-and-roll soundtrack; and desperately searches for her identity in a universe both insular and infinite.

First, the backstory: When Mark and Adele Marcus adopted a Chinese baby, they didn't know she would grow up to be a genius—nor did they know that Mr. Marcus would have to quit the fire department after a back injury and his wife would embark on a high-powered job, keeping her on the road and away from her family. Her lonely daughter's frustration leads to an obsession over the birth mother who abandoned her. But how is Jennifer to search for that shadowy parent when she can't even muster up the courage to take the trash out to the garage? Well, duh! She calls her curmudgeonly mentor, gets a job as consultant for the Department of Defense and builds a robot from surplus parts to act as her mobile android ( gynetroid? ) ambassador.

This is a lot of densely packed information to digest in dramatic time. But director Cecilie Keenan acknowledges the romantic imperative mandating that nature reflect the mood of the hero and paces accordingly. Ironically, Jennifer's warp-speed interior monologues ( accompanied by Mikhail Fiksel's agile score, rendered by onstage musician Whayne Braswell ) only render her more vulnerable while highlighting the quiet moments--viewing a meteor shower on the roof with her gentle father, or swapping confidences with her slackerly pizza-boy buddy. And while the burden of the action rests on Jennifer Shin and Mia Park's tag-team rapport, the supporting players—in particular, Scott Kennedy as an array of eccentrics showcasing Jessica Cai's dialects—lend uniform depth and humanity to roles easily reduced to stereotypes.

Science fiction always risks foundering in its own speculative technology, but the first principle of the cyberpunk literary genre, as laid down by founder William Gibson, is that every Frankenstein be given a heart. Rolin Jones' multiple award-winning play generates the kind of imaginative excitement and poignant recognition reminiscent of Lookingglass and House theatres' early years. And it's only running at Chicago Dramatists until April 1. Calling all lakefront playhouses! Can a transfer space be found for this soon-to-be-runaway Collaboraction hit?


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