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THEATER REVIEW The Making of a Modern Folk Hero
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-10-09

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Playwright: Martin Zimmerman

At: Other Theater at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: $25. Runs through: Oct. 29

You wonder how cults are born, swelling from small enclaves to encompass tribal sects worldwide. Martin Zimmerman offers a cautionary fable of a massive messianic movement whose origins lie in an actor of pudgy physique and modest talents, a cheap Halloween mask-and-cape costume and a populace desperate for a prophet to lead them out of their oppression.

When we first meet Renzo Rafaeli, he is preparing to post his suicide on the internet, hoping to achieve in death the enduring eminence eluding him in life, when his farewell address is interrupted by the arrival of boyhood chum-turned-congressman David Dover, with a scheme for circumventing bureaucratic obstacles in his quest for humanitarian reforms. The plan is to hire a low-profile Nobody to pose as a high-profile Somebody capable of spurring citizens to demand an end to the selfish practices of a corrupt government. This icon is to be called "Volo Publius"—a title loosely translating to "The People Want"—his slogan is to be the colloquial "Let's get this shit done!" and his gospel spread throughout the global community by investigative blogger Vanessa "Indie-tegrity."

Renzo is understandably skeptical at first, but as the mystique of Volo Publius grows in volume, he begins to embrace the role imposed upon him by his disciples. When the lawless actions of his zealous followers threaten to eclipse the good intentions at the root of the charade, Renzo's faith in his own manifesto—though it could also merely be hubristic egotism, depending on how you look at it—as he confronts the assassin sent to kill him leads him to plead for the spectacular martyrdom he once craved.

Audiences should not allow themselves to be distracted by Zimmerman's irreverent approach to his narration, however. Despite the Pepe Le Pew accent sported by Hannah Toriumi's hitwoman, Renzo's frequent reliance on arcane exercises prescribed by his former acting teacher and the shadow-puppet special effects created by Celeste Burns, Adelina Feldman-Schultz and Becca Sheehan, neither Kelly Howe's direction, nor Christopher Meister, Aida Delaz and Robert N. Isaac's performances, are employed in pursuit of simple cutesy nerd-culture drollery. However, they instead reflect a sharply satirical look at the hazards of superstardom—not just in the realm of politics, but in every social sphere of every age.


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