Nostalgic, refreshing and relevant world premiere
|Lookingglass Theatre presents|
|Thaddeus and Slocum|
Review by Lauren Whalen
At one point during Thaddeus and Slocum, a character lies facedown on the stage, embracing the floorboards. For any of us who have ever been involved in the performing arts, this behavior isn’t unusual. The stage, and the unique rush that comes with even standing on it, can serve as both a sacred vessel and a safe haven. For the characters of Thaddeus and Slocum, relationships with the stage ebb and flow, but at the end of the day, it is their life’s work. Kevin Douglas’ beautiful new script explores the complexities of a life largely lived in front of others, and the issues of this life in the early 20th century. Tenderly co-directed by ensemble member J. Nicole Brooks and Krissy Vanderwarker, Thaddeus and Slocum is at once a musical love letter to vaudeville days gone by and a cautionary tale of misguided ambition.
Chicagoans Thaddeus (Travis Turner) and Slocum (Samuel Taylor) have been best friends since childhood, and thanks to Slocum’s late father, have been preparing for a vaudeville career just as long. They are both talented dancers, acrobats and comedians, even if Slocum does have a bit of a drinking problem. The real issue, however, is that it’s 1908 and interracial performer teams are not only unusual but verboten. Venues are segregated in both lineup and audience – when watching shows, the duo must take different entrances and sit in different sections. It looks like Thaddeus and Slocum’s dream venue, The Majestic, will remain just that – until Slocum has an idea. An idea involving blackface. On both Slocum and Thaddeus.
Today, conservatives fight to police public bathrooms and individuals fear for their lives on a daily basis. On Saturday night, shortly after my sister and I left Lookingglass Theatre Company discussing Thaddeus and Slocum, the United States’ largest mass shooting yet – targeting the LGBT population – took place. One hundred and eight years exist between now and the year Thaddeus and Slocum is set, but how far have we really come, as a society? Playwright and Lookingglass ensemble member Douglas isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions, and pens genuine emotion and critique rather than relying on easy answers. He knows there are none. He also loves the art of vaudeville, and that love is evident in every note and syllable. Scenic designer Collette Pollard has transformed Lookingglass’ space into a cabaret setting, where red curtains swish dramatically, footlights glow and the cast has room to play among the audience members as well as on the stage. There’s no better space for a play whose characters have dedicated their lives to entertaining others.
Besides their graceful co-direciton, Brooks and Vanderwarker have a knack for terrific casting: a lovely mix of Lookingglass veterans and newbies. Local favorite Molly Brennan shines as a sultry burlesque madam, and Actors Gymnasium co-founder Lawrence E. DiStasi contributes both comic timing and breathtaking gymnastics. Sharriese Hamilton and Tosin Morohunfola stand out as squabbling dance partners; Adam Wesley Brown is both an apt villain and a gifted musician; and Raymond Fox is properly authoritative as The Majestic’s owner. Audience members may recognize Monica Raymund from the NBC drama “Chicago Fire” – and in Thaddeus and Slocum she displays both soaring vocals and dramatic nuance as a biracial performer passing for white. Taylor uses Douglas’ script as a guide to elevate Slocum from a sloppy stereotype to a complicated young man, and Turner’s performance as the hardworking, introspective Thaddeus is nothing short of a tour de force.
Thaddeus and Slocum is an important – make that essential – play, in many ways. Featuring strong writing and direction and superb performances, Lookingglass’ world premiere raises questions that are both very foreign and tragically familiar. Far from an open-and-shut lesson, Thaddeus and Slocum highlights the complexity, heartbreak and triumph that accompany a career on the stage, and the consequences that arise out of opportunism and ignorance.
Thaddeus and Slocum continues through August 14th at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan (map), with performances Wednesdays thru Sundays. Tickets are $40-$75, and are available by phone (312.337.0665) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). Cabaret pit seats available to patrons under 35 for $20 (must present ID). More information at LookingglassTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Note: contains adult language and mature themes relating to the racial inequalities in 1908 Chicago. Recommended for ages 13 and up with parental discretion.
Photos by Liz Lauren
Molly Brennan (Abby/Sarah), Adam Wesley Brown (Rufus/Johnny/Musician), Lawrence E. DiStasi (Frank), Raymond Fox (Gerry), Sharriese Hamilton (Nellie), Tosin Morohunfola (Zeke), Christina Nieves (Isabella beginning 7/20), Monica Raymund (Isabella through 7/17), Samuel Taylor (Slocum), Travis Turner (Thaddeus)
behind the scenes
J. Nicole Brooks, Krissy Vanderwarker (co-directors), Collette Pollard (scenic design), Samantha Jones (costume design), Christine A. Binder (lighting design), Josh Horvath (sound design), Rick Sims (composer), Katie Spelman (choreographer), Silvia Hernandez-DiStasi (circus choreographer), Ryan Bourque (fight choreographer), Sarah Burnham (properties designer), Narda E. Alcorn (stage manager), Joel Hobson (production manager), Chad Hain (technical director), Liz Lauren (photographer)