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Odessa
by Kerry Reid
2018-09-19

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Playwright: Michaela Heidemann

At: Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N. Clark St. Tickets: theRBP.org; $10-$20. Runs through: Oct. 6

The Ukrainian city of Odessa may be best known in popular culture for the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence in the film The Battleship Potemkin. But what lies underneath the port city provides the setting for Michaela Heidemann's haunting, funny—and occasionally too impenetrable—chamber piece, now in a production with The Right Brain Project under Colin David's direction.

Fittingly, Right Brain is using the smaller stage at Otherworld Theatre for this dark twisty production. Set in the labyrinthine series of catacombs underneath Odessa—remnants of the city's stone-mining past, and so vast that they've never been fully mapped—the main source of stage lighting comes from two flashlights. One is held by Andrew ( Logan Hulick ), an American journalist who was lured to the catacombs, beaten and left for dead. The other belongs to Dariya ( Hannah Williams ), the Ukrainian woman who helped lure him there and feels guilty enough to try and get him back out.

The problem is that they keep getting lost. This enrages Andrew, naturally. While he certainly has reasons to complain, we also get more than a whiff of Entitled American Dudebro from him, which Williams' Dariya delights in pointing out. She also twits him about being a terrible journalist. Apparently before his current misadventure, his greatest claim to media fame was a piece he wrote about trying to survive on nothing but peanut butter for a week. And as he himself admits, a quick Google search ( if not native common sense ) might have told him that going into the catacombs with people he barely knows wasn't a great idea.

Are they alone in this underworld? That's a good question. Before we enter the theater, Masha ( Alison Schaufler ), a bubbly teenager, leads us to our seats and tells us how excited she is about the party about to happen in the catacombs.

Is Masha still wandering the space, too? Is what we're seeing real, or something Andrew is imagining after a head injury? ( Schaufler appearing as his mother in an interlude suggests the latter. ) At one point, Andrew exclaims "This doesn't end until I do"—as concise an encapsulation of the existential viewpoint as you'll find. But it's unclear what we're supposed to take literally here.

As Dariya and Andrew wander and argue, the story starts to spin its wheels a bit. However, both Williams and Hulick excel at negotiating not only the physical landscape of ramps and platforms in the small dark space, but also the shifts in tone from mundane joking to deeper rage.

Ultimately, the show feels more successful as an exploration of atmosphere and uncertainty than as a fully realized portrait of what an American journeying to the heart of darkness might encounter. But if you enjoy theatrical conundrums that don't offer up easy answers, the intimate clamminess of Odessa may suit you just fine.


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