I, too, come here to be entertained. I come here to be moved. But my favorite nights in the theatre at not the ones where I left thinking about how much I loved it. . . . My favorite nights in the theatre are the ones where I left asking questions. Maybe getting into an argument – not about whether the show was good or not, but about whether we are good or not.
That is how Season on the Line begins, and to be perfectly frank, The House Theatre of Chicago‘s world premiere production of Season on the Line was one of my favorite theatrical experiences thus far in my life. I was entertained; I was moved; I loved it from the start – and it did make me ask questions. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but it also caused me to think more deeply – about whether honesty is always truth, when it’s time to say no, what the theatre is for, the role of a director and the qualities of leadership, the relationship between art and critic, the relationship between art and ego in a theatre company, the impact that a review can have, and what happens when a chasing a review becomes more important than an artistic vision.
Season on the Line is the world premiere of a play, loosely adapted from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, that follows the three show season of a struggling, once-acclaimed theatre in Chicago, the fictional Bad Settlement Theatre Company. The narrator of sorts – our Ishmael – is a young man (earnestly played by Ty Olwin) who, despite a lack of theatre experience whatsoever, somehow lands a job at Bad Settlement as assistant stage manager. He draws the audience in, and I find myself hanging on his every word. He breaks the fourth wall frequently, but he does so in a way that invites the audience to join him on his adventure, invites us to become part of the art they are making. As he learns and becomes invested in Bad Settlement, so do we as the audience.
Season on the Line calls itself “an epic love letter to American theater,” and it is, very much so. As such, it also serves as a bit of wish fulfillment for the high school theatre kid I once was. The camaraderie and sense of purpose I remember, combined with the higher stakes of professional theatre – it gives a glimpse of what might have been. The characters are vibrant – complicated, interesting people with big personalities and complex interpersonal relationships that, in some cases, carry a lot of baggage.
I wouldn’t change anything about the cast. Despite having seen numerous of the cast members in other productions, they so fully inhabit their characters that I nearly forget they’re even actors. Thomas Cox brings Captain Ahab to life as Bad Settlement’s artistic director Ben Adonna, a larger than life genius who is utterly fixated on winning a rave review Moby-Dick from the theatre critic played by Sean Sinitski. Adonna can only indulge his genius because he is supported by Maggie Ketterling’s no-nonsense, calm-within-the-storm stage manager Day and Allison Latta’s Nan, the business mind behind the company. Marika Mashburn’s Elizabeth, director of one of the shows, is “delightfully zany,” to use a phrase from the play, and a lot of fun to watch. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was very impressed by Shane Kenyon as Amos, the Bad Settlement actor who made it big and moved on to Hollywood. Andy Lutz’s Peter is conflicted and impassioned, nearly vibrating with energy. Christopher Walsh brought gravitas to Joao, a character of few words from some far-away place with an assortment of hand gestures that he used with utmost conviction, despite the fact that no one ever knew what he meant. As Kaku, Danny Bernardo is warmly, flamboyantly welcoming – the party whisperer, the drunk person whisperer – a mentor to the assistant stage manager, guiding him along his introduction to theatre and fading away once he got a firmer grasp of his role. Would that I had someone similar when I venture into unfamiliar experiences. Mary Hollis Inboden’s Ashley is the lighting designer. Aside from Ben, she’s largely the only person who gets what she wants – and it’s because she knows when to say no.
Season on the Line is presented in the round at the Chopin Theatre, lending to the illusion that we are part of the show. The theatre is designed to look like the interior of a dilapidated pool, mimicking Bad Settlement’s theatre. The lighting is very effective, and I love the way they present the critic’s reviews. I found Season on the Line completely engrossing – it runs three hours, not including two intermissions (the show is divided into three acts, one for each of the season’s three plays), and I didn’t even wonder about the time once.
The all-important critic in the play states that there are three kinds of plays: the few great shows, the few that are terrible from beginning to end, and the vast majority of shows that are good but not great and have glimmers of promise. Season on the Line manages to be one of the great shows. My only complaint is that it is closing too soon – the last two shows are at 7:30 PM today and tomorrow. So head out to the Chopin Theatre this weekend for Season in the Line: you won’t regret it.
Highly recommended: 4 stars
The House Theatre of Chicago at The Chopin Theatre – 1543 W. Division St, Chicago
Running through October 26, 2014 – performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays and Mondays at 7:00pm
Three hours with two intermissions $25 and $35 for tickets (discounted tickets through memberships, as well as $10 same-day student and industry tickets, pending availability)
Written by Shawn Pfautsch
Directed by Jess McLeod