By Adam Rapp
Directed by Jacqueline Stone
Produced by TUTA Theatre Chicago
Live in Someone Else’s Body for a Moment
Playwright Adam Rapp is one of the contemporary masters of establishing atmosphere. Just reading his plays Red Light Winter and Essential Self Defense is enough to set one on edge; the worlds his characters establish are vividly eerie and unsettling. Theatre companies are challenged when producing his work to maintain that feeling of constant low-level tension, and one solution is to use an unusual venue that easily lends itself to grittiness. For the Chicago premiere of The Edge of Our Bodies, Tuta Theatre Chicago artistic director Jacqueline Stone has created a site-specific performance in a Ravenswood Manor garage near where the Brown line crosses Manor Avenue. The muffled, but ceaseless clang of the crossing signal is the perfect accompaniment to a play that heavily emphasizes decay and distance.
Inside the garage, a see-through black curtain separates us from the stage. Scenic designer Martin Andrew has draped the playing space in red velvet, and lighting designer Keith Parham illuminates it with red lamps in boxes (props by Letitia Guillaud). This dramatic room is the inner world of Bernadette (Carolyn Molloy), a sixteen-year-old aspiring writer who snuck away from her New England boarding school to visit her boyfriend in Manhattan. She’s recently learned she’s pregnant, and they haven’t seen each other since his father was diagnosed with cancer. Bernadette figures that surprising him in person will soften the blow of more bad news, although it’s obvious she hasn’t even considered keeping the pregnancy. Really, she just wants an excuse to see him because she senses that he’s drifting, and she’ll lose him if she doesn’t re-enter his life.
Bernadette is still wearing her school uniform (costumes by Branimira Ivanova), and as she describes the miserable-looking and vaguely menacing passengers on the train to New York, it’s impossible not to think of Holden Caulfield. But while Bernadette is casually judgmental, she’s not nearly as morally pretentious or lacking in self-awareness. Carolyn Molloy delivers most of her lines with bemusement and detached pity for herself and most of the people she encounters. The play is set the week before Thanksgiving, and everything looks bleak and cold. Bernadette’s highest current ambition is to be cast in her school production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, and she mentally practices lines from it and tries to make connections to her surroundings. When she arrives in the city, she can’t find her boyfriend, but sees his cancer-stricken father at his apartment. He shows her his deteriorated hands and comments that lately, he’s been having low-key out-of-body experiences—hence the play’s title.
If listening to a teenager’s darkly humorous meditation on the all-consuming ravages of time on people’s bodies doesn’t sound like your thing, be assured that Rapp is perceptive enough to knock Bernadette out of her reverie, twice. A janitor (Sean Ewert) pulls aside the black curtain, shattering the shadowy atmosphere Bernadette has constructed, and she struggles to re-establish it. The reminder that this presentation is artificial allows us to appreciate the skill in constructing it all the more, and being distanced from Bernadette lets us see clearly again what she is learning on her trip. As a writer, Bernadette is aware that she is crafting her self-presentation, even though she’s currently just performing for herself. But she’s a very skilled storyteller, and in the space Stone has chosen, at this time of year when the weather still resembles what is described in the script, it is easy to slip into her world.
Reviewed March 31, 2016
For more information, see The Edge of Our Bodies’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at 4670 N Manor Ave, Chicago. Suggested donation is $25-30; Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through April 17 and May 5-22. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.