A Work of Art

By Elaine Romeroa-work-of-art-480w

Directed by Henry Godinez

Produced by Chicago Dramatists in association with Goodman Theatre

Bizarre Play Represents Grief as Obsession

Elaine Romero’s America at War trilogy is a collaboration between several theatres. The first part, Graveyard of Empires, debuted at 16th Street Theatre earlier this year, and now the second part, A Work of Art, is playing at Chicago Dramatists after a period of development at the Goodman. I did not see the first part, which was generally well-reviewed, and so cannot judge what kind of impact the two works have when seen together. However, A Work of Art is, on its own, rather dull and not particularly related to war. Of course, the purpose of Chicago Dramatists is to develop new work, and this play does have a germ of a good idea in it. But it will need tighter directing and clearer focus from the playwright to be successful.

Vic Kuligoski and Jennifer Coombs
Vic Kuligoski and Jennifer Coombs

It is 1978, not that our protagonist, Sabrina (Jennifer Coombs) pays much attention to that. She does not believe in time, not since her little brother, Kirk (Vic Kuligoski) was killed in Vietnam. Since then, Sabrina has been consumed by grief and denial, imagining that Kirk is still living somewhere in the jungle with a family of his own, and she refuses to pursue or maintain any of her interpersonal connections. But now it has been ten years, and in the face of renewed outreach from her adoring step-mother, her best friend, and a new guy who is interested in her, even Sabrina’s determination to cling to the past is starting to waver a little.

The most distinctive aspect of Sabrina’s story is that she is, to put it bluntly, completely nuts. Early in the play, she calls Kirk her “demi-god,” and at another point, she proclaims that the rest of the world dissolves whenever she thinks of him. In the style of a dream play, we see this happen from her perspective, since Regina Garcia’s scenic design and Mike Durst’s lighting create an ephemeral space, which Kirk’s ghost drifts in and out of, and where no location is ever definite. Romero’s dialogue is also poetic, although often far from subtle. Characters declare matter-of-factly that occupations are always messy, and lay out in about three sentences the debate over America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Vic Kuligoski and Charin Alvarez
Vic Kuligoski and Charin Alvarez

Most of the play is spent justifying why Sabrina is so obsessed with Kirk. They were raised, and then abandoned by an abusive military family, and their Mexican step-mother Carmen (Charin Alvarez) was the person who truly loved them. She taught Sabrina to believe strongly in spirituality, and also has visions of Kirk long after he dies. But even Kirk’s ghost is uncomfortable with the degree to which Sabrina pines for him, and tells her from the beginning to the play to move on. That she has pushed people away for so long also made me doubt the credibility of her co-worker Emiliano’s (Mario Moreno) devotion. He says, barely knowing her, “If you want me, I’m yours,” and offers to let her call him Kirk, which seems to me like it would be a red flag.

Considering how none of these characters are entirely naturalistic, the actors do, at least, convey the proper emotion in almost every scene. I especially liked Kuligoski, who as Kirk mostly seems abashed to be the cause of so much grief, and slightly offended, since enlisting was his choice, and Sabrina for a long time is unable to understand that. But director Henry Godinez seems to have interpreted the dream-like presentation as static, and the conversations often lack energy. At one point, two actors appear as Kirk’s imaginary Vietnamese family wearing masks, but the masks lack a hole for the mouth, forcing Moreno to yell and sacrifice his vocal precision. Sabrina’s choice to pretend that Kirk is missing in action instead of dead is how the play relates to war specifically, which she probably would have done no matter how he died even if she couldn’t use one particular flag, but her situation is too unique to be called a reflection on America. People who enjoyed Graveyard of Empires may still be curious about A Work of Art, but should be prepared for a lot of mysticism before a predictable ending.

Somewhat Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed June 27, 2015

For more information, see A Work of Arts’ page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W Chicago Ave. Tickets are $18-40 with group discounts available; to order, call 312-633-0630 or visit chicagodramatists.org. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through July 19. Running time is ninety minutes with one intermission.