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by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Claire Kiechel. At: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-283-7071 or; $30-$40. Runs through: July 30

Claire Kiechel's world-premiere play Pilgrims is billed as a sci-fi drama. But its core is a gripping mystery between two strangers hinging on shifting male-female power dynamics.

The two principal characters are "The Soldier" ( a hulking and often menacing Ed Flynn ), who is forced to share the same spaceship cabin with "The Girl" ( an overly enthusiastic Janelle Villas ). She's keen to reinvent herself on a far-off planet, and even to find a spouse right away to help repopulate the human race.

The laconic Soldier, who has previously battled aliens, has other ideas. He angrily makes his displeasure about the loss of privacy known to the personal robotic stewardess called "Jasmine" ( a hilariously perky Brittany Burch ). Yet events conspire to keep the three trapped in their tiny cabin for weeks on end.

One of the main strengths of Pilgrims is how Kiechel keeps the audience guessing about the ulterior motives of both the Soldier and the Girl. Clearly the Soldier is damaged in some way by his military service. But the Girl has her own past problems, too.

Kiechel and co-directors Michael Patrick Thornton and Jessica Thebus also build tension ( and audiences guessing ) by illustrating upsetting scenarios between scenes ( or as scenes themselves ). These could be foreshadowed events that will tragically play out, or possibly disturbing dreams of the Soldier or the Girl.

Now the ultimate revelation of the two characters' past traumas might not live up to all the imaginative speculation that swirls throughout the play. Kiechels device of game-playing for the Girl to ferret out information from the Soldier can also feel a tad too precious ( though the early battle for the bathroom does harken back to the one between Blanche and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire ).

Kiechel's Pilgrims provides a sturdy dramatic framework for much imagination to take flight for both audiences and the production's actors and design team. The cast and crew at The Gift grab onto these glories of Pilgrims and create plenty of dramatic and design magic.

With Arnel Sancianco's elevated hotel-room set design, lighting designer Heather Gilbert and sound designer Chris Kriz all expertly collaborate to create a futuristic and claustrophobic environment ( though audiences in the first row may have to crane their necks a tad too long ). The very attractive cast also skillfully works to keep audiences constantly guessing.

It's often said that sci-fi is more a reflection of the times it was created in rather than a true prediction of future events. So with Pilgrims, the paranoia over whom to trust and what is real or alternative reality certainly rings true for this very uncomfortable time full of people venting pent-up anger and sharing misinformation.

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