Playwright: Ike Holter. At: Jackalope Theatre at Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway. Tickets: $15-$30; JackalopeTheatre.org . Runs through: June 25
What would happen if self-made comic-book heroes took on the endemic gang shootings on Chicago's South Side? That's the question Ike Holter brings up in his hilarious, yet ultimately tragic, world-premiere play Prowess, for Jackalope Theatre.
Now die-hard fans of superhero franchises might assume that Holter has ripped off the premise of the film and comic book Kick-Ass. But Holter keeps his characters very much grounded as everyday Chicagoans whose actions are motivated by a genuine fear and desire for self-protection. The comic-book stuff largely comes later to knowingly spoof the film genre clogging up so many multiplexes.
But as the play goes on and the characters become violent vigilantes, there's the touching and complex need for redemption and forgiveness, too.
Prowess deftly assaults the senses of audiences throughout in a number of ways. Holter's dazzling use of overlapping dialogue always commands attention. He also deploys a cornucopia of pop cultural references to continually leave audiences in stitches whenever the characters jab each other with cutting shade.
But more importantly, Holter honestly cares for his damaged characters and their arguably skewed motivations to build and strengthen themselves up as fighting dynamos. The amazing four-person ensemble of Prowess grabs onto Holtzer's complex characters and they wring out every necessary drop of physical sweat and sad emotion.
As the fighting physical trainer Mark, Julian Parker is a great coach battling his own past demons. And as his two fledgling pupils Zora and Andy, Sydney Charles and Andrew Goetten respectively work wonders with the physical comedy while also infusing their characters' drive with their frightening back stories.
Rounding out the cast with another dynamic performance is Donovan Diaz as the mysterious and conscientious graffiti tagger Jax who initially mocks Mark and his trainees. But Jax soon develops tender feelings for the fighting trio, and Holter provides a plot twist that you won't often see in mainstream superhero films.
Director Marti Lyons and her technical collaborators ensure that Prowess remains a visceral experience from start to finish. Lyons finds the right balance of quiet emotional scenes to punctuate the elaborate and nerve-wracking fight choreography sequences devised by Ryan Bourque. Courtney O'Neill provides a great urban unit set to allow for lighting and projection designer Michael Stanfill to create a Chicago that is both gritty and fantastical at the same time.
In Prowess, Holter cleverly taps into the cultural zeitgeist of comic-book superheroes while also bemoaning the very real and upsetting problem of senseless violence in Chicago. In this vastly entertaining stage fantasy rooted in unsettling reality, Prowess raises a lot of tough questions for its characters to wrestle with, but vitally for Chicago audiences, too.