By Bennett Fisher
At: House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division Ave. Tickets: 773-769-3832 or
TheHouseTheatre.com; $20-$50. Runs through: Oct. 21
Sluggish, juvenile and repetitive, the House Theatre's Borealis was in rough shape at its final preview. But even were the swampy pacing tightened up, it's difficult to imagine the show working.
This is a tale where the ostensible hero doesn't change despite a lengthy quest narrative. It's one in which her often repeated catchphrasesomething like "lick a turd"reads more bratty than heroic, in which mechanical lifts laboriously rise and fall but add very little to the story, and in which fight sequences don't come to a climax so much as they just stop with a blackout and/or the combatants walking off stage.
Most of all, this is a show that clobbers its audience, over and over, with the most oversimplified adolescent nonsensea cliche most people realize is almost wholly bullshit around the time they realize they need a health care plan independent of their parents. The takeaways from Borealis: If you love your job, you've been brainwashed. If healthcare and an income that allows you to take care of yourself are priorities, you are a sellout. Also: Corporate higher-ups are literally reptiles, their underlings are mindless doobs and true heroism means forsaking all civilization and heading into an endlessly snowy wasteland towell what exactly isn't explained.
The plot begins with 13-year-old Cozbi ( an energetic Tia Pinson ) and her brother, Absalom ( a poker-faced Desmond Grey ). They reside somewhere far north in a perpetually dark, cold corner of the world. They like to roughhouse. ( Movement designer Breon Arzell and fight director Gaby Labotka create kinetic versions of Fisher's dialogue. ) The siblings dream of heat, bayous and city lights. Absalom promises to get Cozbi out ( although why, exactly, they're trapped isn't really clear ). Then Absalom goes to work on an oil rig. Flash-forward an unspecified amount of time: Absalom has vanished.
Well, not entirely. He's "written" a ( video ) letter to his sister. She can't tell what it says because portions have been redacted. Fisher's plot hinges on the mystery of the letter. If Cozbi can find her brother and solve the redactions, the audience will understand the peril Absalom is in, and the nefarious doings of a corporation that has trapped him. But once Cozbi closes in on the secrets of the oil rig, Fisher loses steam. The revelations are about as revelatory and dramatically satisfying as a memo on keeping your cubicle tidy.
There isn't a lot director Monty Cole can do with Borealis other than keep it moving. But without characters any deeper than a page in a comic book or a plot that contains any genuine stakes, there is little reason for movement. Finally, the show has a DIY aesthetic that gives the moments of fantasy the feel of a middle school pageant. Low-tech can be charming and innovative. It can also come across like a middle-school scouting project. Things swing toward the latter here.
The House has been telling versions of this story since its inception over a decade ago: Plucky adolescent with Peter Pan qualities vs. The Big Bad World of Adults. It was charming in shows like The Sparrow and The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan. Now, it's been visited once too often, resulitng in a story with nothing much to say.