By Jackson Riley
It takes a certain kind of crazy to launch a new theatre company in a city that already contains over four hundred, but Amy Rubenstein, artistic director and co-founder of Windy City Playhouse, seems to be up to the challenge. The sophisticated new space at 3014 W. Irving Park brings some excitement to an otherwise neglected area of the city, and the high ceilings and leather arm chairs pull you into an experience both personal (the actors are quite close) as well as independent (the chairs are so large, there's about two feet between you and your neighbor).
The excessive nature of the seating is replicated in the design of the play, as its very clear that no expense was spared. This doesn't exactly add to the play, however, as most of the expensive set pieces are used only momentarily. It makes one shudder to think of the smaller companies who could use just a small amount of the extra $10k I'd imagine was thrown onto Windy City Playhouse's stage.
Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days tells the story of one family attempting (and failing) to deal with their demons post-9/11. The father (Keith Kupferer, most recently seen in American Theater Co's brilliant The Humans) sleeps all day, forgets to eat, and falls out of touch with those around him. His wife (the wonderful Tina Gluschenko) has accepted Jesus (Steven Strafford) as her coping mechanism and insists that the rapture is right around the corner. Their daughter (Sari Sanchez, in goth makeup so over-the-top the girls in The Craft look like Barbies) befriends the quirky neighbor (Stephen Cefalu Jr.) who is bullied for dressing as Elvis everyday...for some reason.
The biggest issue with Windy City Playhouse's inaugural production, directed by Henry Godinez, is a lack of vision. Are we watching a familial drama? Or a laugh-out-loud comedy? The damaged nature of the characters and levity of the situation could certainly lend themselves to hilarity with the right script, but End Days is not that script. Laufer's text is a much more straightforward drama than this production wants it to be, and by forcing some less funny moments to the forefront, scenes that should actually be funny don't work. Stafford's moments as Jesus are hilarious in the beginning, but lose their effect quickly. Similarly, his turn as Stephen Hawking is simply uncomfortable. Line after line, the audience was perfectly aware we were supposed to laugh, but on our own chair-islands of solitude, the poor actor was left doggy-paddling.
That's not to say the production is a complete failure. Both Kupferer and Gluschenko are reliably entertaining, with Glsuchenko's endless energy often leading the production. Similarly, Cefalu is consistently great as the outcast. His role in the play is the one comedic element that never failed to land. The staging, on the Playhouse's long alley stage, creates some beautiful imagery. However, the company's production of End Days seems to drag on forever despite the best efforts of the cast (who in the world has ever asked for a twenty minute intermission?) and the alley set up of the playing area makes it hard to miss the audience on the other side yawning and losing interest alongside yourself. A communal experience indeed, but probably not what WCP was going for.
End Days has been extended through May 3rd, 2015. More information: http://windycityplayhouse.com/
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