There are few things more ‘Chicago’ than the CTA. You’ve probably taken the red line to see a friend up in Rogers Park, the blue line to O’hare, or a bus to get to North Avenue Beach. You also most likely share in the city-wide love/hate relationship with the service. You can laud the convenience of the brown line and then curse a twenty minute delay in the same breath. Universal, though, is the ‘El Story’ - a tale of an odd scene witnessed by the teller while riding transit. These can be hopeful, funny, crazy, or (most likely) gross. El Stories: Holiday Train is a theatrical collection of these stories with a seasonal flavor to it, mixing in vignettes of the famous holiday train and tales of Santa on the flatbed car. While certain stories hit their stride and capture what makes an El Story engaging, the overall experience feels a little too disjointed to fully recommend.
The production’s strengths are in its variety and strong cast. The brevity of each story allows scenes to change rapidly and often, creating engaging pacing that holds the audience’s attention.The format also affords the stories to have different themes and purposes; this is used to great effect and prevents the overall production from feeling one-note. A touching story of a perpetually happy train conductor is paired nicely with a fun story of a train-wide song which is then paired with a thrilling Snowpocalypse story. The constant switch ups are executed in a way that does not feel exhausting and creates a nice variety. The ensemble’s performance is also to be lauded, as the portrayal of each character and execution of bits is strong throughout. They have genuine enthusiasm to tell the audience the story which is a boon to audience engagement.
The main issue, though, is the inconsistency of the writing. While there are clear standouts, there are too many stories where the climax or main gag fall completely flat. Certain scenes tell the most interesting part or the punchline of the story too early and then retell that revelation or joke ad nauseum. The order in which you reveal the facts is critical to telling a story, so it is unfortunate to see the production fumble this. The content itself is interesting, but the scenes need strong edits to make the delivery satisfying. Additionally, there are certain stories within the production which feel duplicitous. We do not need a pee, a poo, and a vomit story when they all have the same punchline and go on for far too long. It would have been nice to allot more time for holiday transit stories instead of retreading shock-humor to keep with the title of the production.
Ultimately, the production is a mixed bag. Some stories are touching, funny, and well told, while others feel like a poorly told tale from a drunk friend at a party. There is potential for this to be a great slice-of-life holiday piece with some major editing, but in its current form it might not be worth the price of admission.
Somewhat Recommended ★★✩✩
Review by Ryan Moore
El Stories: Holiday Train continues through Dec. 22 at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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