Directed by Eric Burgher
Produced by Profiles Theatre
It’s Christmas for Weirdos, Too
Among Chicago’s grittier holiday season theatricals, Will Kern’s Hellcab stands out as a reliable crowd favorite. First produced in 1992 by a company called Famous Door, it ran continuously until 2001, and is now revived by Profiles Theatre every winter. The play depicts the episodic adventures of an unnamed taxi driver on Christmas Eve of the year Hellcab was written, as he moves customers who are everything from frightening, to pathetic, to sympathetic, and just plain strange. This year’s Hellcab retains Profiles’ innovation of casting thirty-three actors, most of whom play only a single role. While the text remains the same, all of the costumes (designed by Raquel Adorno and Gregory Graham), and sometimes, the genders and personal dynamics of the characters are changed in each revival. Most notably, the driver is now played by Chicago newcomer Zlatomir Moldovanski, who, being much younger than previous actors in the role, puts a different spin on it.
The play begins with the driver struggling to open his taxi early in the freezing morning. The car, an actual, gutted period-appropriate taxi designed by Katie-Bell Springmann, has been cut away to allow for sightlines and to ease the actors’ entrances and egresses. The first passengers of the day are a young, conservative couple, on their way to church. The driver starts a conversation about Christmas, and winds up being pushily evangelized to, before the couple nearly get into an argument about spanking their children. They’re annoying, but not dangerous, and this incident demonstrates the driver’s tendency to get more involved with people than he ought to. While waiting to pick up travelers outside O’Hare, he gets dragged into an argument between two black cabbies about whether it’s a good idea to pick up black passengers. The driver volunteers that he admires Malcolm X, earning only scorn, and setting another pattern for the rest of the day: there’s a lot of prejudice he hears and feels obligated to silently go along with.
It would be pointless to list every interaction the driver has with his thirty passengers, but I’ll supply a few illustrative examples. Some couples are so horny they have sex right in the car, others are fighting, with devastating results. He gets hit on with varying degrees of insistence, and becomes privy to some horribly awkward information about strangers who expect him to take their side no matter how bad or foolish their behavior. Early on, a man high on cocaine angrily demands he drive from store to store, while he searches in vain for someone he can score more drugs from. The driver becomes more concerned for his safety as the day drags on, and he winds up in Chicago’s then-nastier neighborhoods.
Not all of the passengers are horrible. The driver is a very nice man, and goes out of his way a few times to try to help some of them. Moldovanski goes through an odyssey over the ninety-minute-long show, and the accumulation of his experiences (which are most of Kern’s stories from his time as a cabbie compressed into a single day) forms a connecting thread through the many episodes. By the end of the day, he’s exhausted, but still compassionate enough to be disturbed by an especially terrible experience one of the last passengers confides in him. As with most of the darker holiday fare, Hellcab ends on a note of hopefulness that is all the more edifying for having gone to dark places, and is one of the most appropriate shows for the Christmas spirit. It’s also hilarious, and features dozens of excellent performances. There’s not a weak link in the whole show. Long-time theatre goers and newcomers alike who see the 2015 production will understand what made Hellcab so popular.
Reviewed November 21, 2015
For more information, see Hellcab’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Will Kern’s debut novel, Ballet for Guys, will be published in January 2016.
Playing at Profiles Theatre’s Main Stage, 4139 N Broadway, Chicago. Tickets are $35-40, with discounts for students, seniors, and groups. To order, call 773-549-1815. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 7:00 pm through January 10, 2016. Running time is ninety minutes.