Upon entering the lobby of Windy City Playhouse, guests are given an invitation which stipulates the ‘rules’ for the evening. Basically, you’re attending a birthday party in 1961. You’re an invisible guest in the characters’ home, eating and drinking (and moving) along with them as the events unfold. Immersive theatre rarely pays off, but Southern Gothic is masterfully handled from start to finish.
Leslie Liataud’s script is familiar territory. In fact, my guest and I predicted what ‘scandalous’ 1960’s plots we could expect with almost perfect accuracy. However, the excellent cast and thrill of the production more than make up for the lack of narrative surprises. The ensemble is anchored by strong performances from Sarah Grant and Michael McKeough, who play the couple hosting the party. These actors are tasked with setting the stage (or house, rather) before the guests even arrive, which plays out as the audience watches through the windows from ‘outside.’ Once the production begins, you are welcomed into the home and are able to move throughout depending on your preference.
David H. Bell’s direction uses every playing area of the house expertly. Even audience members who choose to sit in the same spot for the entire duration of the play should have no trouble following along - but I assure you, you’ll want to chase after the actors as their secrets and true feelings come out. It’s impossible to witness everything - and that’s a-okay. The script provides clues towards what may be important next, drawing you from room to room, and when my date and I split up, we enjoyed whispering updates to each other. We attended the same play, but witnessed the events from entirely differing viewpoints.
The play has some wonderful emotional moments that are alarmingly investing due to the intimate nature. For every huge, explosive moment, there is also one in which an actor whispers something to another, or the like. Each moment feels like a special treat. At one point, an actor accidentally held my hand. At another point, a theatre usher politely moved me out of the way. If he hadn’t, I’d have been a victim to some of the production’s realistic violence design.
Windy City Playhouse has put together the most memorable and immersive theatrical experience our city has seen since The Hypocrites' All Our Tragic in 2014. Southern Gothic could easily become a staple in Chicago entertainment similar to Tony and Tina’s Wedding or the long-running production of Bible Bingo at the Royal George. My only qualm, then, is the theatre’s lack of accessible ticket options. The production’s price point of $75-100 single tickets eliminates many potential audience members from joining in on the fun. Perhaps Windy City Playhouse can make a select amount of more affordable tickets available as the production continues in order to make this an experience anyone can enjoy.
Review by Jason Berger
Southern Gothic continues at Windy City Playhouse through May 27. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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