Review: Cocked (Victory Gardens Theater)

| March 12, 2016

Kelli Simpkins and Patrese D. McClain in Cocked, Victory Gardens          


Written by Sarah Gubbins
at VG Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru Mar 13  |  tix: $15-$60  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 


Darkly funny, but opportunities missed


Kelli Simpkins, Mike Tepeli and Patrese D. McClain in Cocked, Victory Gardens Theater

Victory Gardens Theater presents

Review by Lauren Whalen 

Coincidentally, I saw Cocked on the same day that America mourned the death of novelist Harper Lee. In Lee’s seminal “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which dealt with issues of racial violence through the eyes of a young Alabama girl, the protagonist’s father says, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” Like “Mockingbird,” Sarah Gubbins’ new play deals with issues of racial violence, this time in modern-day Chicago through the eyes of an interracial lesbian couple. Cocked has good ideas – a great concept, really – and its heart is always in the right place. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite get there.

Kelli Simpkins, Mike Tepeli and Patrese D. McClain in Cocked, Victory GardensIzzie (Patrese D. McClain) and Taylor (Kelli Simpkins) are living the dream: they have a gorgeous condo in Andersonville and are successful at their professions, journalist and attorney respectively. So what if things aren’t quite so rosy under the polished surface, thanks to their increasingly distant relationship and psychopath neighbor who recently acquired a very loud canine? They’re equipped to deal, until Taylor’s ne’er do well brother Frank (Mike Tepeli) unexpectedly arrives and promptly wreaks havoc. Along with a fair amount of emotional baggage, Frank brings a gun into the couple’s decidedly firearms-free home, and the couple’s liberal beliefs are put to the ultimate test.

Cocked returns to Victory Gardens as a world premiere, after an acclaimed run in the theater’s 2014 IGNITION Festival of New Plays. Gubbins, a former Chicagoan now based in L.A., recently sold a television pilot to Amazon, and she and director Joanie Schultz have previously teamed up for The Kid Thing at About Face Theatre and fml: how Carson McCullers Saved My Life at Steppenwolf for Young Adults. There’s no question that playwright and director are gifted and work well together. On the surface, just like Izzie and Taylor’s relationship, Cocked is solid. Schultz’s trademark intelligent staging and quick wit keep the action moving, and Gubbins’ characters sound and act like real people. We all know an Izzie, a Taylor, a Frank. The action is entirely set in Izzie and Taylor’s condo which, thanks to set designer Chelsea M. Warren, is almost scarily reminiscent of a gut rehabbed Andersonville abode (to the point where had I not been informed in the press release and program, I would have known it was a gut rehabbed Andersonville abode). All three actors are strong, but Tepeli stands out as the troubled but likable Frank. Gubbins says in the program that she enjoyed writing the character, and thanks to her and Tepeli, the audience enjoys watching him.

Mike Tepeli and Kelli Simpkins in Cocked at Victory Gardens Theater

However, issues run rampant beneath Cocked’s smart and shiny surface. The play is about guns, yet it isn’t. Much of Cocked’s script feels as if Gubbins was trying too hard to create an Issue Play rather than a story of family and romantic relationships that just happened to have a gun violence thread. In some ways, I understand this: it’s hard enough for one’s writing to get produced without a hook, and no hook could be more timely in Chicago, and America, than gun violence. (As Gubbins said in the program, “Anywhere in this country, at any time, I could be the victim of a mass shooting.” As my sister once told me, “Sometimes I’m more afraid to just go about my day than I would be to walk through a ‘bad’ neighborhood late at night.”) That said, I wish Cocked had made Patrese D. McClain in Cocked at Victory Gardens Theatera little more room for the human relationships angle. Additionally, while the action is fast-paced thanks to Schultz’s direction and Gubbins’ sharp dialogue, the tension is almost overwhelming. From moment one, the audience is granted virtually no respite from characters being sad or angry with one another. Just a touch of lightness here and there would be both welcome and realistic: after all, Taylor helped raise her younger brother, and yet they have virtually no good memories or even an inside joke? Izzie and Taylor have been together for almost a decade, yet there are virtually no moments that show the audience what connected them in the first place.

In some ways, Cocked works. With a little more thought from Gubbins, however, the play might have worked a lot better. It’s realistic (gun violence is very real and very frightening), yet not (no character appears to have ever liked any of the other characters). Cocked is darkly funny but also deeply sad, and with more concentration on the very human emotions going on, could be more effective. Wouldacouldashoulda….

Rating: ★★★

Cocked continues through March 13th at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm and 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $15-$60, and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or online at (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 90 minutes, no intermission)

Kelli Simpkins, Mike Tepeli and Patrese D. McClain in Cocked at Victory Gardens Theater

Photos by Michael Courier




Patrese D. McClain (Izzie), Kelli Simpkins (Taylor), Mike Tepeli (Frank)

behind the scenes

Joanie Schultz (director), Chelsea M. Warren (scenic design), Janice Pytel (costume design), Sarah Hughey (lighting design), Thomas Dixon (sound design), Sam Hubbard (fight direction), Isaac Gomez (dramaturg), Tina M. Jach (production stage manager), Lee Saunders (asst. director), Aimee Plant (props master), Michael Courier (photos)


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Category: 2016 Reviews, Biograph Theatre, Lauren Whalen, Victory Gardens, Video, World Premier, YouTube

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