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THEATER REVIEW Engage!
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2017-08-16

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Playwright: Brendan T. Stallings. At: Stellar Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; TheaterWit.org; $20. Runs through: Aug. 25

It sounds like the start of a joke: An alien, an android, a human and a monk are stuck in deep space together when all of a sudden.

I guess it is a joke because Engage! is designed as easy amusement incorporating some basics of theater games and audience participation. It has some clever lines ( "All organics are inferior to androids" ) and respectable stage combat ( as one expects from R&D Choreography ), so it's not a terrible way to spend 75 minutes; but it's not as good as it could be, even within its decidedly modest ambitions. Engage! doesn't ask enough of its audience or its cast.

For starters, the characters are too familiar: a warrior alien ( Cat McKay ) with a Klingon Bat'Leth, a Jedi-like space monk ( Kate Vargulich ) with a light saber, a sentient android ( Benjamin Albovias ) and a smart-ass Hans Solo-like smuggler ( Marcus Cunningham ). Couldn't author Brendan T. Stallings invent more original creations? He himself plays the villain, a slightly effete generic type but not modeled after any identifiable character.

A more substantial issue is the structure. Most theater games attempt to engage numerous people, sometimes the more the merrier. Audience-interactive storytelling needs to provide repeated ways and means to involve the viewers. Granted, cast members cannot force participation and, at the performance I saw, only one viewer volunteered at the beginning. Still, the audience wrangler—an omnipotent Q-like character named Y ( Kali Skatchke )—didn't attempt much suasion or woo additional participants later in the show, when the audience might have been more relaxed and willing. So, one person got to name all the characters ( except Y ), name the spaceship and make decisions on the action ( option A or B ) throughout the show. I think this is a mistake, especially as Engage! steeply discounts returning audience members—different choices make a different show—who might want to participate the next time.

As for the cast members, they mustn't play Engage! as a throwaway game. They need to live in character each moment through earnest ( the key word ) exaggeration. Although effective when they had action ( I particularly liked Albovias' quarter-staff work in combat scenes ), they stood and looked rather—uh—unengaged when the focus was elsewhere, or the action stopped for an audience choice. FYI: The reasonably incomprehensible plot ( it matters not ), has the villain create multiple hologram replicas of the real characters, each of whom must defeat the holograms to survive.

"That is the beauty of space, my friend—it requires no proof. It's real and ethereal," says the space monk in the show's best line. Perhaps I should let Engage! be the cloud of cosmic cotton-candy dust it is but, hey, I'm a critic.


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