Playwright: Colette Freedman . At: Chimera Ensemble at Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: ChimeraEnsemble.com; $22-$26. Runs through: Sept. 18
Playwright: John Michael. At: Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-398-7028; TheDenTheatre.com; $10. Runs through Sept. 12
As the Den Theatre undergoes construction of yet another stage space, it's interesting to note that two Chicago premieres now playing in this multi-level performance complex both feature queer characters dealing with painful losses of a parent.
Chimera Ensemble snagged the rights to Colette Freedman's international hit drama Sister Cities ( which has been adapted in a soon-to-be-released film ), while gay performance artist John Michael touches upon his reactions to death when he worked in a Dallas "memory care center" in his one-man show Dementia Me.
Sister Cities zeroes in on a mother who has concocted a macabre scheme of committing suicide to bring together her four estranged grown daughters for a reunion in Poughkeepsie, New York. Each daughter has different locational names and separate fathers, plus plenty of resentments toward their mother and fellow siblings.
For example, easygoing lesbian novelist Austin ( Anna Donnell ) harps on divorced high-powered Seattle lawyer Carolina ( Katlynn Yost ) for not being in better contact with their mother. Later, suburban school teacher Dallas ( Anna Donnell ) takes issue with free-spirited Harvard student Baltimore ( Norma Chacon ) and her propensity for profanity.
But the heart of Sister Cities is a powerfully acted flashback scene between mother Mary ( Rainee Denham ) and Austin. The reason behind Mary's suicide is revealed, and that later causes some crazy sisterly drama.
Freedman is to be commended for creating five juicy dramatic roles for women in Sister Cities, while also making it an old-fashioned advocacy play for a controversial topic of today. But Sister Cities' dramatic construction can be problematic. Sisterly "girl talk" exposition appearing after the play's first-scene crisis is awkward, as is the need for every sister to unload an upsetting personal secret.
It also appears that Sister Cities director Ashley Neal has miscast the actresses playing Baltimore and Carolina, since they don't fully convince in their characters' demeanor or dialogue. But more often than not the plusses outweigh the problems in Chimera's local premiere of Sister Cities, which is surely worth a trip.
I'm going to be more reserved in my endorsement of Dementia Me, which shows Texas-to-Chicago transplant John Michael still honing and refining his style of confessional performance art. Michael is brave enough to depict himself onstage as a petulant and selfish youth, though some counterbalancing redeeming qualities would be nice.
Michael uses balloons with drawn-on faces for other characters, which is both clever ( especially the visual metaphor of the life draining from his elderly charges ), or very cloying with every screechy character voice he applies.
At least Michael's unleashed emotions feel genuine. Hopefully Dementia Me serves as both therapeutic for Michael and audiences facing similar situations to the ones he so recently and wrenchingly experienced.