Theater 2015-16: Reveling in discomfort zone, Profiles leads off with the off-beat ‘Jacksonian’
First in a series of season previews: Midwest premieres abound as Profiles Theatre explores sex, lies and the dimensions of personal freedom. Curtain up Aug. 27.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
Profiles Theatre opens its 27th season with an off-the-wall, grimly humorous, borderline surreal gem of a play fraught with wacky characters and murder, Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” that might have been tailored expressly for this devoutly edgy company.
“The Jacksonian,” which is set in a bleak Mississippi hotel and brings together a clutch of folks who prove ever more bizarre as events unfold, finds a sort of counterpoint in Jez Butterworth’s likewise loopy, and fascinating, “Jerusalem,” about a middle-aged social rebel who has withdrawn from the world to occupy a trailer in the woods – a dumpy palace for a shabby prince of counterculture who now faces eviction by the forces of convention.
Add to those a double batch of short plays by Profiles resident artist Neil LaBute plus Penelope Skinner’s “The Village Bike,” about a sexually frustrated young wife who pedals off to unexpected adventures, and you have the definition of Profiles in its groove.
“‘The Jacksonian’ observes that even when you’re dealt a tragic hand, it’s still within your means escape from the downward spiral,” says Joe Jahraus, who shares the company’s artistic direction with Darrell W. Cox. “And ‘Jerusalem’ is about a bunch of young people celebrating the absurdity of life, and this man who has become sort of their guru.”
Profiles’ presentation of LaBute’s two bundles of short plays called “Vices” and “Virtues” – perspectives on what love means and what it does not — marks the company’s 13th collaboration with the American writer. “Some of these pieces have been performed around New York and Los Angeles, but on a very limited scale,” says Jahraus. “Neil is writing a couple of new pieces for us as world premieres.”
This season is the fourth for Profiles’ dual performance venues, the original 65-seat Alley Stage and the nearby 100-seat Main Stage. Jahraus says the two spaces have changed the way he and Cox think about play selection.
“The two spaces give us great flexibility,” he says. “We still love the intimacy of the Alley, but the larger theater allows us to take on projects we never could have done before. For ‘The Jacksonian,’ you need both a motel room and a bar. And in ‘Jerusalem,’ you have to accommodate a trailer large enough for someone to live in. We can do those things now.”
The 2015-16 season in brief:
- “The Jacksonian” by Beth Henley (Midwest premiere, Aug. 27-Oct. 11, Mainstage, 4139 N. Broadway): At the low-end motel in Jackson, Miss., a separated couple press toward their bitter divorce while their teenage daughter reels with this dark turn, a shady bartender eyes the daughter and the bar maid eyes the father. Meanwhile, murder’s afoot. “Aspects of this play are nightmarish,” says Jahraus, who’s directing ‘The Jacksonian.’ “The older I get, the more I am conscious of how much of who we are is influenced by early formative things that happen to us. We watch these events through a young girl’s eyes – through the memory of an adult looking back at being 16.”
- “Hellcab” by Will Kern (fourth annual holiday production, Nov. 12-Jan. 10, 2016, at the Mainstage): On Christmas Eve, a cab driver transports a motely array of customers through the gritty streets of Chicago. Kern draws from personal experience as a former cabbie to create this alternately frightening, hilarious and poignant journey. Throughout his long shift, the eclectic collection of passengers includes a trio of drug-addicts, a born-again couple, a smug lawyer, and a randy duo on their way to a motel. It’s a rear-view image mirroring the passing parade of humanity. “It’s the cynical man’s ‘Christmas Carol,’” says Jahraus. “Our subscribers have a great time with it.”
- “Vices” and “Virtues” by Neil LaBute (World and Midwest premieres, Jan. 21-March 6, 2016, Alley Stage, 4147 N. Broadway): Two evenings of short works exploring the theme of love in all its lust and animosity, humor and sadness, goodness and depravity. “This will be something a little different for us,” says Jahraus. Different? For Profiles? Oh, that isn’t what he means. He means: “We’ve never done two evenings of plays in repertory.” Or if you want it all in a gulp, Saturdays will offer the option of experiencing both “Vices” and “Virtues” back to back.
- “Jerusalem” by Jez Butterworth (Midwest premiere, Feb. 18-April 3, 2016, Main Stage): A comic, contemporary vision of rural England, Butterworth’s wildly original epic play is both a lament on the erosion of country life and a rebuff to the antiseptic modern world. On St George’s Day, the morning of the local county fair, Johnny “Rooster” Byron is a wanted man. The town council wants to serve him an eviction notice, his son wants his dad to take him to the fair and a motley crew of locals wants his ample supply of drugs and alcohol. “It’s like a fable,” says Jahraus, “an event play rather than plot driven. These are characters who just don’t care. When you’re young, you think, ‘I’ll never grow old.’ Rooster’s a bit like Peter Pan. He may be a pied piper, or he may really be leading these kids to freedom.”
- “The Village Bike” by Penelope Skinner (Midwest premiere, May 12-June 26, 2016, Main Stage): In this darkly comic look at romance, Becky, newly pregnant yet sexually frustrated, finds her husband is more interested in baby books than her provocative new nightie, so she turns to fantasy created by the old porn stash under the bed. As the summer heats up, Becky takes matters into her own hands by purchasing a used bike meant to burn off energy, but ends up embarking on an adventure that takes her much farther than she ever expected to go. “Penelope Skinner is an exciting writer and very much a feminist,” says Jahraus. “Women are not really allowed to do things that men have done in terms of their sexuality. This play allows a character to explore that. Some people will say, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ But this is her story. Does it lead to fulfillment or sadness, or both?”
- Profiles Theatre’s official website: Go to ProfilesTheatre.org
- Review of ‘Genius’ at Profiles: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of ‘The Other Place’ at Profiles: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Interview with Lia D. Mortensen as Julianna in ‘The Other Place’: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of ‘The Cryptogram’ at Profiles: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com