Pomona opens with a question: is it a boon or a burden to know the horrific things that happen behind closed doors? Is it better to know how the sausage gets made or does ignorance of it keep us sane? And in our friend Ollie’s case, is it wise to find out what really happens in the dark underground of Pomona?
Pomona presented by Steep Theatre is a missing-persons crime thriller told across multiple characters non-chronologically. While the first scene roots us in the present and sees our protagonist Ollie asking for leads on where her sister might have gone, the production proceeds to switch to the past and present goings on of other characters affiliated with the disappearance in a mostly random fashion. The audience views a variety of scenes which provide world building, creates criminal hierarchies of the island of Pomona, and fill out the larger picture of what happened to Ollie’s sister. For example, an early scene follows Pomona henchmen assaulting each other as a means to fake a mugging, but the audience won’t know why until the larger picture is uncovered. This smart, jigsaw-like structure is highly engaging and is a smart story structure to get the audience actively feeling like they are involved in the investigation.
It is a little disappointing, then, that this thriller has a few too many thematic elements that feel unnecessary and struggles to find proper pacing. Pomona wears both its Lovecraftian horror and role playing gaming influences on its sleeve, quite literally having the characters play a Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG as a subplot and having a masked Cthulhu walk the stage during scene interludes. The cosmic horror elements add a nice occult flavor to the world and do a good job making the backdrop feel bleak and blemished, but the role playing game elements do nothing to service the story. If anything, they serve to detract from the audience experience of participating in the investigation as it muddles certain character developments and takes time and resources that could have been spent building the world.
Worse is the pacing. The first half of the show is a very slow burn, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. You definitely want to leave room for the production to grow and escalate scene after scene, sowing more questions than answers to keep the audience engaged. However, it is incredibly unsatisfying to have the grand reveal told through a singular character interaction. The true atrocities of Pomona are just given to the audience in an exposition dump of a monologue that serves to cheapen the dramatic tension that was building and neuters the climactic final discovery scene. Layering the big reveal in alongside the raid on the Pomona would have been a much better way of showing instead of telling.
The production is saved, though, by its strong acting. Steep should be commended for its commitment to accent work and taking the time to do admirable jobs learning how to express the anger, concern, and villainy shown by each character. If the strong acting and the unique story structure of this show sounds appealing enough, then Pomona may be worth the price of admission. Otherwise, you may want to think twice. (Ryan Moore)
Somewhat Recommended ★★✩✩
Pomona continues through Sept. 14 at Steep Theatre. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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