Ivywild: The True Tall Tales
of Bathhouse John
An absurd story turned even stranger
|The Hypocrites presents|
|Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John|
Review by Keith Glab
A pair of Aldermen who oversaw Chicago’s corrupt levee district in the early 1900s head to Colorado Springs, a town boasting health resorts frequented by Chicagoans who have contracted tuberculosis. Alderman “Bathhouse John” Coughlin falls in love with a mountainous patch of land called Ivywild outside Colorado Springs and decides to take their millions of dollars of vice profit to build an amusement park and zoo on that land. He is encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt and packs his park with an assortment of animals from across the nation, including a drunken snub-nosed elephant from the Lincoln Park Zoo named Princess.
It’s hard to believe that Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John is actually based in reality. Rather than present the story in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction adaptation, writer Jay Torrence and director Halena Kays accentuate the absurdity. The story unfolds in a nonlinear manner, with the characters sometimes aware of events that will take place in their future. In the opening moments of the play, the cast dances to modern house music. Strobe lighting and smoke machines accentuate the production’s trippy feel. Princess, the drunken elephant (Anthony Courser), can talk, often directly to the audience, and wears a pink tutu. Meanwhile Tien Doman portrays The Amusement, some sort of a beautiful zombie mime with tuberculosis.
The cast does a great job of keeping the energy level high. Torrence plays his own lead character, making Bathhouse John a whimsical diva that is fun to watch. Ryan Walters gives him a lot to work with as the straight man of the show, or the closest thing the show has to a straight man. Courser makes strong choices as Princess, and it’s pretty hard to argue with them. How often do you see a drunken elephant portrayed on stage?
Ultimately, the difficulty in following the action makes Ivywild less enjoyable than it could be. Even if you read the timeline included in the program beforehand, you’ll struggle to understand the story. Rather than fill in the missing details, this production leaves most of the questions surrounding these improbable events unanswered. Without being grounded in narrative, what could be a really unique story amounts to little more than spectacle and buffoonery.
The cast and crew do a great job with the spectacle, though. The choreography in particular, which is a collaborative effort, sizzles. Torrence and the cast turn Bathhouse John getting dressed into an acrobatic feat. I particularly enjoyed a bit where two of the cast puppeteer two others. Three audience volunteers join the cast onstage and experience simulated roller coaster rides as one of the cast reads a (presumably) real account from an actual patron of the Ivywild amusement park.
Some will find Ivywild to be a unique and engaging experience. Others will leave the theatre with a pickle button and wonder what in the heck they just witnessed. In either case, kudos goes to The Hypocrites for trying something brave and different.
Ivywild continues through June 16th at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map), with performances Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $28, and are available by phone (773-525-5991) or online through Tix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at The-Hypocrites.com. (Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Matthew Gregory Hollis
behind the scenes
Halena Kays (director), Jay Torrence (playwright), Justine Palmisano (stage manager), Lizzie Bracken (set design), Alison Siple (costumes), Kevin O’Donnell (sound design), Jared Moore (lighting), Matthew Gregory Hollis (photos)