Hard to watch, impossible to shake
|Stage Left Theatre presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Sexual assault is a difficult matter all around. Thanks in part to a fearmongering, sexist culture, it’s something many women (including me) fear above all else. It’s also extremely complex from a legal perspective, often requiring the victim to relive a horrific experience and boiling down to he-said, she-said. Warped looks at one such incident from three different viewpoints, as two women try to find out what really happened. Stage Left Theatre’s world premiere of Barbara Lhota’s timely, provocative play verges on overdone, but hits right in the gut.
Chicago police officers Hal (Mark Pracht) and Alex (Nick Mikula) are nearing the end of their shift when they encounter Hope (Kate Black-Spence), a drunk young woman wandering alone on North Avenue Beach. Traveling out of their district and neglecting to call in, they drive her back to her Uptown apartment. One hour later, Hope emerges from her apartment screaming rape. One day later, detectives Jules (Lisa Herceg) and Kim (Victoria Caciopoli) listen to Hal, Alex and Hope’s separate and wildly varying accounts of the incident. As more details are revealed, Jules and Kim find that “truth” can be more fluid than absolute, and more strange than sure.
Inspired by the film “Rashomon”, Warped looks at the aftermath of violence, the abuse of power, and the confusion of perspective with sharp intelligence and dark wit. The fear of assault is often more prevalent in women, and Lhota’s dialogue is gritty without being exploitative, hitting on the details that will have many buying pepper spray and enrolling in self-defense courses. Whether or not assault occurred in this case, it does occur, and Lhota displays a detailed understanding of escalating circumstances, misunderstandings and the very fraught issue of consent. The play’s structure – incidents of the fateful night told in flashback to the detectives, with the occasional scene in the present – carries through the entire two hours, and works well to build and sustain suspense. There wasn’t a time when I wasn’t completely invested in the story.
If anything, Warped’s occasionally overzealous production values are what threatened to take me out of the moment. Adam Smith’s sound design reminded me a bit too much of Law and Order: dramatization of crime rather than real-life horror. Ditto John Kohn III’s lighting, which relies a bit too heavily on spotlights to indicate who was now telling the story, which the audience is perfectly capable of discerning. I wish Smith and Kohn would have scaled back somewhat, and let the powerful script speak for itself. Stephen H. Carmody’s set, however, is quite strong, using minimal materials to convey a police department office, a cop car and a shabby apartment.
If the production values almost took me out of Warped, the show’s flawless cast brought me back. Herceg is the epitome of tough-talking, yet vulnerable detective – she could slip into caricature territory but instead is utterly natural. Caciopoli’s more easygoing mannerisms provide an excellent foil to Herceg, and the two have an excellent rapport. With his handlebar mustache and imposing stature, Pracht resembles many real-life Chicago cops, and slips in and out of flashbacks with ease. Max Ganet is stuttering perfection as a Jesse Eisenberg-esque neighbor/witness, and Mikula gives Alex likability with an edge. Black-Spence gives the strongest performance: her Hope is a study in contradictions, in control one moment and dangerously unstable the next, but at all times a damaged woman who may or may not be all she seems.
Warped isn’t always easy to endure, but it’s a story that needs to be told. People are messy: they can take advantage of others, indulge to excess, and lie to protect themselves. That said, no one deserves to be victimized, in any way. Lhota’s fantastic script and the truly talented ensemble make this premiere hard to watch, and impossible to shake.
Warped continues through October 6th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $25-$27, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at StageLeftTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Johnny Knight
behind the scenes
Jason A. Fleece (director), Kristin Steele (production manager), John Kohn III (lighting design), Adam Smith (sound design), Zev Valancy (dramaturgy), Stephen H. Carmody (scenic design), Theresa Ham (costume design), Joshua Hurley (properties design), Brian Browne (tech direction), Jason Crutchfield (stage manager), Brian Plocharcyzk (fight choreography), Katie Horwitz (asst. director), Vance Smith (producer), Seam Studios (graphics design), Johnny Knight (photos)