Playwright: Timberlake Wertenbaker At: Red Tape Theatre at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont. Phone: 847-738-6919; $25. Runs through: May 29
It's a warm room, with a climb of many stairs before we sit down for what we are told will be an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. But once the play begins, all forebodings vanish, so smoothly does the action flow and tension build to rivet our attention beyond any thoughts of decampment.
This is fortuitous, since the configuration of the stage for Red Tape Theatre's ambitious revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker's neo-classical tragedy renders untimely exits almost impossible. The audience is confined in two sunken pits surrounding a circular platform accessed by a pair of gangplanks leading to playing areas ranged against the auditorium walls, which also give way to a circumscribing promenade allowing actors to march, gambol and declaim behind our backs. The only elements missing to complete the epic-scale ambience associated with Greek myth are flying equipment and a box-of-rocks thunder-machine.
The myth under scrutiny is that of the Athenian princesses Procne and Philomele, the former of whom marries Thracian war-hero Tereus. Wearying of the provincial life in her husband's northern home, Procne persuades him to fetch Philomele for a sororal visit. In the big city of Athens, however, Tereus attends a play depicting the legend of Hippolytus and Phaedraa tale of adulterous incest sparking the country-bred soldier, on the journey home, to fall in lust with his sister-in-law. She resists his infatuated advances, whereupon he rapes herand when his defiant victim vows to make his ignoble deeds public, he cuts out her tongue to silence her. But the gods see everything and, years later, the truth is exposed, the faithful siblings are reunited and the guilty wrongdoer is punished for his crimes.
Our story is recounted through a variety of presentational devicesKorybantic dance, a cappella incidental music, live-action puppet shows, a map of ancient Greece and environs for tracing sea routes, a strobe-lit bacchanalia with revelers clad in black undies, two brawny wrestlers illustrating the nature of warany one of which could easily drag the entire production into one giant chaotic mess. Under James Palmer's direction, however, the 22-member ensemble retains its focus every instant despite the handicaps of their vault-like space to render this up-and-coming young company a solid contender for 2010's most promising addition to Chicago's off-Loop theater community.