Directed by Eric Burgher
At Profiles Theatre, The Main Stage, Chicago
Cult classic Goes for a Victory Lap with Richard Cotovsky at the Wheel
Train cars roar along decaying tracks. Sirens blare. The wind howls. A man shivers in the cold, alone. He begrudgingly walks towards a taxi cab. The lock is frozen. The driver blows on the lock, a trick any Midwesterner is familiar with. Struggling for minutes, the driver finally opens the door to the taxi and gets in. He sinks into the driver’s seat, pulls down his scarf, and breathes heavily. This is how Hellcab begins, and its one of the few moments of silence in the chaotic cult play. It’s Christmas Eve and everyone has somewhere to go, whether they want to or not.
Hellcab, originally premiering in 1992 as a limited-run late night show, went on to become one of the longest running shows in the history of Chicago theatre, running for over nine years. For the past two seasons, Profiles Theatre has revived the play, this time featuring the original Driver, himself, Richard Cotovsky. The play follows Cotovsky as he collects fares in the city of Chicago throughout Christmas Eve, from morning to night. Like a fever dream, the Driver and audience alike bear witness to an electric group of passengers, from bible thumpers to drug addicts, as the Driver collects measly fares to make a living.
The cast of characters, played by 33 different Chicago based actors, give it their all with their cameo-like appearances, which really adds to the energy and immediacy of the play. With every actor vying to be memorable, it truly feels like madness. Cotovsky is pitch perfect as The Driver, squinting to see through the winter weather while often silently judging each passenger. His joy is never too obvious, his fear never over the top, Cotovsky does a tremendous amount with very little.
The mood of the play, with characters coming and going with very little context, lends the play to a sense of moral ambiguity. This is also presented nicely through the fantastically rigorous, dense, and grungy set design by Katie-Bell Springmann. However, the Driver, when prompted, does interact with characters on moral grounds. He is not helpless, despite his passive position in the car. This provides the play with a specific Midwestern core. Much like Chicago, which has a reputation for corruption and inequality like any other city, it is also thoroughly Midwestern: Citizens will kindly offer you directions, hold doors, and say please and thank you when they’re not honking their horn at you from behind the wheel. This gentle core gives Hellcab a unique feel.
It is this exact moral compass, however, that damages the conclusion of the play. The Driver bears witness to one woman’s story and feels helpless to do anything for her. While I’m sure Will Kern intended to do right by such a woman, as much of this play was inspired by his time as a taxi driver, what follows is a heavy-handed scene designed to rid The Driver, and the audience, of any guilt or burden. However, this device, commonly used throughout the arts, completely overlooks the issues that plague the person whom a crime has been committed to, instead focusing on providing bystanders with ways to cope with having to bear witness to such senseless violence. As the Driver exemplifies earlier in the play, we are not helpless. In these situations, something can be done, something far greater than quelling one’s guilt.
This particular issue aside, Hellcab is a great evening of entertainment and a valuable alternative to the usual holiday fare. If you’re looking for a wild night to warm up your cold Chicago winter, look no further.
Date reviewed: November 13, 2014
For more info, checkout the Hellcab page at theatreinchicago.com
At Profiles Theatre, The Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, call 773-549-1815, tickets $35-40, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5 & 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, running time is 80 minutes without an intermission, through January 11, 2015