Theater 2014-15: Death, travel, Alice and Ahab shape and reshape images at Lookingglass
12th in a series of season previews: Chicago premiere of Lucas Hnath’s “Death Tax” raises curtain Sept. 12; world premiere of circus-like retelling of “Moby Dick” caps the company’s eclectic fare.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
If theater should be an adventure, then Lookingglass offers something akin to safari into unknown regions every time out. The company’s premiere-laden 27th season reflects that ever-changing dramatic topography — from Lucas Hnath’s family-challenged “Death Tax” to a brand-new ropes-and-spars vision of “Moby Dick.”
“Eclecticism is who we are,” says artistic director Andrew White, “and we want every show to be a discovery. That’s why we use a black box. You walk through those doors and you don’t know how the space is going to be configured or where you’re going to sit.”
Known for theater at its most robust and physical, Lookingglass teams up twice this season with the gravity-defying acrobatics of Actors Gymnasium — for the super-kinetic “Moby Dick” and a revival of the company’s popular romp called “Lookingglass Alice,” based on Lewis Carroll’s fantastical tales.
A quieter, if no less intense, drama opens the season in Hnath’s “Death Tax,” about an aging woman who thinks her daughter is helping her toward an early end in order to beat a scheduled estate tax increase. And Will Eno’s one-man play “Title and Deed” offers a wry travelogue that takes up the universal quest for a sense of home.
“This season’s mix simply reflects the wide variety of interests among members of our ensemble,” says White. “It’s a typical range – sometimes intimate and emotional, sometimes topical and sometimes it’s about physical spectacle and punch. But always the focus is on the story. When we finally choose a play, it’s because we’ve answered the basic question: Why must this story be told?”
The 2014-15 season in brief:
- “Death Tax” by Lucas Hnath (Chicago premiere, Sept. 12-Oct. 12): How much would you pay to stay alive? As her health deteriorates, Maxine is convinced her daughter is paying Nurse Tina to nudge her into the grave before the new estate tax becomes law. So Maxine proposes a deal of her own, and the suspenseful and treacherous ride begins, plunging straight to the intersection of America’s two inevitables. “The plot is intriguing and the writing is really sharp,” says White. “In America, we have an aversion to death and dealing with it. We turn away from it. This incisive play, really a dark comedy, peels back the morally complex layers around the subject, and nobody is a good guy. We have steeply raked the seating, so the audience will be looking down as in a surgical theater.”
- “Lookingglass Alice,” adapted by David Catlin from the works of Lewis Carroll (Nov. 22-Feb. 15, 2015): This signature Lookingglass exhibition, co-produced with the Actors Gymnasium, uses physically grand story-telling to transport audiences down the rabbit hole to a circus-like wonderland. “It’s 100 minutes of intensely spectacular, beautiful theater,” says White. “We’ve done it several times at the Water Tower (the company’s home space) and took it on tours around the country in 2008 and 2010. It’s filled with circus elements and has everybody rolling with laughter. But it’s also emotionally compelling. It’s about a young girl’s coming of age. It leaves you wanting to tell your kids, ‘Don’t be in such a hurry. Childhood is a wonderland, and when its door closes, it’s finished.’”
- “Title and Deed” by Will Eno, monodrama featuring actor Michael Patrick Thornton (Midwest premiere, March 28-May 3, 2015): A spirited traveler lives, laughs and poses soul-baring questions in this travelogue. It is one man’s journey that reminds us of our own, a lyrical celebration of life, language, endless hope and our perennial search for home. “Whenever we travel, we step out of our daily mode and become conscious of the world in a new way,” says White. “This is a sort of travelogue not set anywhere in particular and therefore universal. It alternates between poetic style and a very plain-spoken text. There’s an existential quality about it. Will Eno is asking: ‘What am I doing here and what am I looking for? Am I supposed to be somewhere else, and how do I get there?’ There’s a good deal of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce in this magical writing.”
- “Moby Dick,” adapted by David Catlin from the novel by Herman Melville; co-produced with the Actors Gymnasium (World premiere, June 20-Aug. 9, 2015): In Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of leviathan, it is man and sea raging against each other as Melville’s tormented seafarer bears down on his quarry. For the crew of the Pequod, it’s a harrowing plunge into the struggle between fate and free will. “This is a story of obsession to the point of fatality,” says White. “Who is Ahab going to bring down with him? What constitutes leadership? Here is physical theatricality in a story packed with the metaphorical language — as well as the ropes, sails and raw elements — of great story-telling.”
Lookingglass is located in the heart of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, at 821 N. Michigan Ave., in one of the original buildings of the Chicago Water Tower, which famously survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The company moved into its present home in the Water Tower’s pumping station in June 2003. “It’s a great space because of its intimacy,” says White, one of the company’s founders. “Audiences love the huge adventures that happen right in your lap.” Lookingglass received the 2011 Tony Award for best regional theater.
- Official website of Lookingglass Theatre: LookingglassTheatre.org
- Review of Sara Gmitter’s “In the Garden” at Lookingglass: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Keith Huff’s “Big Lake Big City” at Lookingglass: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Christine Mary Dunford’s “Still Alice” at Lookingglass: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Role Playing: Eva Barr as an Alzheimer’s victim in “Still Alice”: Read the interview at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Role Playing: Anish Jethmalani as a good man battling demons in “Bengal Tiger”: Read the interview at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” at Lookingglass: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: Actors Gymnasium, Andrew White, David Catlin, Death Tax, Herman Melville, Lewis Carroll, Lookingglass Alice, Lookingglass Theatre, Lucas Hnath, Title and Deed, Will Eno