You may not have heard of Chimera Ensemble - the young company is currently beginning its second year in Chicago, and much of the ensemble is comprised of artists that have recently transplanted from other cities. Their slight production of Cam Baby may be buried amongst the many other productions opening across the city, but the new script by Jessica Moss is one of the most promising I've seen in some time.
The play takes place in an apartment with two bedrooms rigged for secret video recording. The apartment owner, Joseph (played by Murphy Mayer), is being egged on by his investor (a smarmy Nico Fernandez) to keep both rooms full of young, hot women at all times for their online group's viewing pleasure. However, the occupants turn out to be a young woman (Norma Chacon) that Joseph has complicated feelings for, and the 'off-brand' Clara (Nora Hunt) who is considered far too unattractive to be on camera. Clara begins a romantic relationship with Tim (Arif Yampolsky), and both are unwillingly (and unknowingly) pulled into the world of amateur pornography.
Moss does an excellent job of seamlessly building the world of the characters in a way that we are constantly learning about them and their relationships without every really noticing overt exposition. Unfortunately the tone of the production was a bit confusing, as the characters and situations shift from believable to frustrating; the majority of the characters treat serious violations of privacy as small potatoes. When a mysterious and intimidating man (Christopher Donaldson) corners Clara in her own home, there is no attempt made to call the police, and she never even asks how he got inside. The play also overstays its welcome by several minutes after it reaches its climax, making the more affecting preceding moments less memorable by default.
The design elements are minimal, but serviceable. Unfortunately there were several dark areas on the stage making it difficult at times to see the actors faces - even in a tiny space such as the one at Collaboraction - and from my seat, one of the doors of the set blocked a small area of the playing space. Jesse Roth's direction had many moments of very natural staging, but just as many in which the actors seemed to move for no other reason than to create a new stage picture. The script also plants tension about where the cameras are hidden, but when your set contains so little, it's fairly easy for the audience to solve the mystery before the characters do.
The strongest performers were Yampolsky as Clara's supportive boyfriend, the outcast in a room of outcasts, and Fernandez as the corrupt mastermind behind the entire operation. The rest of the cast is solid enough, but the emotional depth presented was relatively one-note. It would be more believable to see these characters - particularly the women - respond with more contrast as the truth comes to light.
Chimera Ensemble's production of Cam Baby is not perfect, but it is an interesting and exciting offering from a young company. Of the three premieres I took in last week in Chicago, the first two of which were at much bigger theatrical institutions, Jessica Moss' script was the most thought-provoking by far. Cam Baby is a juicy dramedy for today that will leave you thinking.
Review by Jason Berger
Cam Baby continues at Collaboraction Studios through March 4. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreinChicago's Review Round-Up.