My favorite of these four is the one intended for children, though whether it’s in fact suitable for children is another matter. Lions in Illyria is Robert Kauzlaric’s clever adaptation of Twelfth Night to the animal kingdom. It contains surprising insights into the original text: I had never before registered that Viola and Olivia are mirror images in more than name as both mourn brothers, the first genuinely and the second affectedly. Viola and Sebastian are the twin lions of the title; Olivia is a gazelle and Orsino (aptly) a peacock. These and all the other characters are played by the same four stunningly versatile actors under Amanda Delheimer Dimond’s impeccably clear direction: kudos to Bryan Bosque, Mykele Callicutt, Brandi Lee and Kate McDermott. But many audience members were 5 or under, and they didn’t seem to follow what was going on, though their parents were having a high old time. This show should be seen by every Brownie Scout troupe in the Chicago metropolitan area: it’s perfect for girls ages 7 to 11. Too much romance for boys, too much plot for younger children, too many morals drawn for older children. So this is a perfect show, lacking only its perfect audience.
Both Trap Door and the Side Project offer world premieres about torture and confinement. Each is appropriately agonizing but that doesn’t mean I recommend either. Cookie Play at Trap Door purports to be a parody of the national-security state in which we all now live: a pair of government agents seek the cooperation of a fugitive’s parents while the mother tries to pacify them with cookies and the father with agreement. Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, the son is being tortured. But you can’t satirize a self-parody, and our government’s buzzwords and euphemisms have long since become risible. If you haven’t been reading the papers and need an education in what’s been done in your name since 2001, by all means see Cookie Play; otherwise skip it, though director Kate Hendrickson and her cast (especially Lyndsay Rose Kane as Mom the baker) bring out everything the text has to give, and more.
Meanwhile, in the equally claustrophobic Side Project space, Ronan Marra directs Push Button Murder, whose title gives you the whole story. A pair of soldiers sits in a bunker in Ohio and shoot down suspected terrorists elsewhere in the world. They cope with gallows humor and by quizzing each other on trivia until a mysterious government agent (sound familiar?) shows up—for what purpose, neither they nor we can be certain. Meanwhile, in alternate scenes which seem wholly unconnected to the bunker story, a pair of fired teachers considers revolutionary action. Then the soldiers take the government agent hostage and cover his mouth with duct tape as a sort of down payment on future torture. Again, if you’ve been living in your own bunker for the past 10 years, you might need to be told that we kill people remotely and then describe them as terrorists. Steve J. Spencer’s script tries to make this point new by connecting it to the de-funding of education but succeeds only in making it confusing and overcrowded. Again, the actors—especially Meredith Rae Lyons as the female soldier—do their best but they’re prisoners in a play which inflicts pain without gaining, or imparting, intelligence.
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is something completely different: a blend of kitchen-sink realism and second-wave feminist fantasy. As in Judy Chicago’s installation “The Dinner Party,” Churchill summons women from history and myth to evoke forms of female power from Patient Griselda to Pope Joan. She then settles down to the actual story, which turns on the question whether a woman can be successful in business only by abandoning her child. Doubtless this was a fresh subject at some point but it’s the deadest of equines today. Director Mark Boergers has chosen to have his actresses strut across the stage in weirdly stylized (and offensively sexualized) ways which do credit to no one, but two performances rise above this handicap: Pamela May David as a bawdy Pope and Aislinn Kerchaert as a desperately needy adolescent confronted with equally unacceptable alternative models of womanhood. Be warned, though: the next person of any gender who mentions the concept of “having it all” will have all of my fist in his/her face.