An unsuccessful attempt at dark satire
|Steep Theatre presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a satire that worked – and I’ve seen dozens of attempts. Steep Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of Luther wants to be a satire. It wants to show a target audience of do-gooders what happens when do-gooding goes too far. As a satire, it fails. As a display of gratuitous puppetry, unnecessary choreography and flat-out condescension, it succeeds.
Marjorie and Walter Forman (Kendra Thulin and Peter Moore) think of themselves as good people. Though they’re barely making ends meet, they have adopted Luther (Michael Salinas), a traumatized war vet. Yes, they have legally adopted a grown man, and it seems to be a common practice. Luther has his good days, consisting of yogurt consumption and putting puzzles together, but when the couple takes him to Walter’s company party, everything goes horribly awry.
At its core, Luther seeks to explore civilians’ troubled relationship with those who have fought for our country. What to say? What to do? How to relate? It’s a pretty strong concept, and Luther may have worked nicely as a straight drama – or in the hands of a better playwright. Instead, Ethan Lipton goes the offensive route, outright poking fun at a very damaged individual (who represents a very damaged group). Even this device could have worked, making a complacent audience uncomfortable, if Lipton’s clumsy dialogue wasn’t so mean-spirited.
And there are puppets. Missi Davis gamely lends a hand and several voices to portray a couple at the party, a policeman and Fran Liebowitz. There is absolutely no reason for these characters to be puppets. None. Avenue Q was a hit, but puppets were a necessary element as the show was essentially an adult version of “Sesame Street”. Davis does a nice job, but it’s one of the dumbest attempts at “edgy” I’ve ever seen on stage.
Steep has an able resident ensemble, and several of Luther’s cast make the very best of a terrible script. Salinas, last seen as John N. in Victory Gardens’ graceful Failure: A Love Story (my review), interprets the title role with authenticity and respect, despite the absence of both these elements from the source material. Alex Gillmor has a few dignified and funny bits in the dual role of a police officer and a cater waiter – the latter’s stilted conversation with Luther is one of the only moments that rings completely true. And as Marjorie, who’s struggling to be a loving “mother”, good wife and fulfilled individual with varying degrees of success, Thulin does everything right: from her plummy vocal tones to her character’s halting delivery of what she hopes are just the right words. She is completely convincing.
Luther director Joanie Schultz has quite an impressive résumé: she’s helmed productions at Steppenwolf and Goodman, a Jeff Award winning show at Steep, and 2011’s highly acclaimed The Kid Thing for About Face and Chicago Dramatists. Indeed, Schultz writes a beautiful director’s note about the strange complacency resulting from the everyday struggle to be “good”. It’s without a doubt the best director’s note I’ve ever read. I hope to see her direct stronger scripts in the future.
Luther continues through March 2nd at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $20-$22, and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at SteepTheatre.com. (Running time: 90 minutes, no an intermission)
Photos by Lee Miller
behind the scenes
Joanie Schultz (Director), Julia Siple (Production Manager), Lauren Lassus (Stage Manager), Chelsea M. Warren (Scenic & Puppet Design), Emily McConnell (Costume Design), Pete Dully (Lighting Design), Thomas Dixon (Sound Design), Sarah Burnham (Props Design), Ryan Bourque (Fight Choreographer), Ann Boyd (Choreographer), Emily Davis (Assistant Director), Lee Miller (photos)