Brooke Berman, J. Nicole Brooks, Aaron Carter, Lonnie Carter, Brian Golden, Laura Jacqmin, Jamil Khoury, Rob Koon, Brett Neveu, Yolanda Nieves, The Red Orchid Youth Ensemble and Marisa Wegrzyn.
Jen Green, Lawrence Grimm, Jonathan Green, Brian Stojak, Ed Cisneros, Richard Perez, Rebekah Scallet, Eric Ziegenhagen, Jen Ellison, Megan Shuchman, Brian Golden, Vance Smith
Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins
I love my city. Chicago is a scrappy rough and tumble kind of town, and if the natives embrace you-you’re in like Flynn. Theatre Seven of Chicago presents the psyche and environs of Chicago with The Landmark Project. Through twelve vignettes written in collaboration with numerous artists and performers, Theatre Seven has successfully illuminated the diversity of Chicago’s history and people in a thoughtful and entertaining way.
The short plays go through a good representation of the diversity and quirks that are unique to Chicago. This is a neighborhood town. All of the glitz and hipster attitude is a recent occurrence. It used to be that when you met someone from another neighborhood, the first question was, "what parish do you belong to?" That sensibility still exists in spite of gentrification and all of the polishing that the investment class seems to think is needed for a ‘world class city.
The cast is a big one, but the feeling of community glows from the stage. The Red Orchid Youth Ensemble were part of one of my favorite sections of the show. They represent a city kid’s eye view of "Lincoln and Webster" which is Oz Park. The ensemble hearkened back to the days of "Zoom" on PBS. I’m talking the 70’s version of the show with the secret language of Ubi Dubi and joy in being a kid. These kids were amazing. They were jubilant, wise, innocent, and quite funny.
“State & Madison: The Chicago Grid,” written by Marisa Wegrzyn, goes back to the origins of how Chicago got the grid street system. Tracy Kaplan and Joe Zarrow manage to convey the dirt street ruins from which arose this city as Irene and Edward Brennan in 1901.
The nod to the intelligentsia vibe of Hyde Park is given a sardonic and funny treatment in "63rd and Woodlawn: Robust Coffee Lounge", written by Brian Golden. It’s the land of University of Chicago and academic competitiveness. A man is faced with his past and a secret life that isn’t so secret. The dialogue is laced with the wry jostling of academia and an authentic bourgeois tilt that has always been Hyde Park.
Chicago has a complicated history with race and ethnicity. The story of "63rd and Kedzie: Arab American Community Center” turns the spotlight on a neighborhood that has been in flux for the last 40 plus years. It is known as the Marquette Park and Gage Park neighborhood. When I was in high school, it was the brewing ground for the neo-Nazi movement in Chicago; where Dr. King was hit in the head with a brick for protesting the virulent segregation policies. The story of "63rd and Kedzie" continues today with the Arab American community being the latest ethnic group under the microscope. This story is written by Jamil Khoury and the conflict is subtle yet powerful. The sense memory of that neighborhood back in 1975 comes to a fresh simmer. The dialogue is honest and there is no holding back on the confusion and anger of both sides. Peace and understanding can begin with one person. That is a lesson that still needs to be heard in some parts of Chicago.
"Division and California: Steel Flags" features a wonderful story of youthful awakening and the power of keeping secrets. A young Puerto Rican girl disappears and her sister keeps the secret that she ran away with a boy. The family is alarmed, putting up flyers, and agonizing over what could be a horrible fate. It is a finely paced story of the Puerto Rican community and the female bonds that are common in any ethnicity. This story features Marcel Asilis and Damariz Posadas as Cookie and Sonia whose bond is tested by a secret and defiance. There are some hilarious moments when the grandmother gets after Cookie with a shoe. She can sense that the truth is either a relief or the beginning of a long row to hoe.
Another favorite features two boys playing catch circa 1948 in "Devon and Kedzie: Thillens Stadium". This lovely story took me back to the days when baseball was not just the national pastime but the neighborhood pastime. The boys, played by Destin Teamer and Kevin Woodrow are tuned into the complexities of the game of baseball and barely notice that they are Black and White. They discuss which is the greatest Negro League player and who they pretend to be. The White boy says that the families are getting together for a picnic and it is only for a moment that the Black boy hesitates. This is his baseball buddy and not the enemy that they would be in some other part of the city. It should be noted that the Thillens Stadium is still going strong, proving the bonding power of sports.
All of the stories in The Chicago Landmark Project are authentic renditions of the feel and history of the respective neighborhoods. For the most part, all of the places remain more or less as they are portrayed. However, the final story is called "Belmont and Western: Riverview Amusement Park". This is the story of a haunting where there now stands a police station, grocery store, and toy mega-mart. My grandpa would take me to Riverview, at the time the nation’s largest amusement park, almost every weekend. I remember the thrill of seeing the eyes of Aladdin’s Castle moving from side to side and knowing that it would soon be cotton candy and kiddie rides galore. Riverview closed in 1967 before I was tall enough to ride The Comet or the Bobs roller coasters. When we drove by after it closed without warning, it seemed haunted and lonely to me.
In the segment, three teenagers come to where Riverview once stood. Sam Bailey is brilliant in the role of Karen. She projects intelligence and maturity while in the company of two confused teenage boys. Andrew Raia plays Hunter and his character has a not so secret crush on Karen. Arthur Soria is hysterical as the hip hop spouting Alvaro who loves to razz on Hunter and then pull the ‘I’m a person of color and therefore hipper than thou’ card. Suddenly lights start to flash and amusement park noises are heard. A man appears from nowhere, holding a teddy bear which he gives to Karen. This is to the chagrin of both Hunter and Alvaro. Desmond Gray plays Elijah, a swain and apparent apparition. Elijah proceeds to school the trio on the darker history of Riverview – there was a dunking tank called ‘Dunk the Nigger’ at Riverview – and the full gamut of ethnic stereotypes. Yet everyone loved to go to Riverview. The amusement park is all about illusion and fantasy and the theory goes that there is something for everyone. (I recall hearing that in a Riverview commercial during the old ‘Family Classics’ show.) Elijah asks Karen to accompany him and Hunter’s real feelings come out. Who will Karen choose? The fantasy man or the boy next door? Check out The Chicago Landmark Project to find out!
The Chicago Landmark Project is comprised of twelve short plays. They are divided in half as Part A and Part B. I recommend that you see both to get the full flavor of this wonderful project put together from the Chicago theater community. It is worth the time and the tickets to see the great young talent and the veterans portray Chicago. I came away feeling the grit of Chicago under my nails. Yes. it’s metaphorical but that is Chicago in a nutshell. It’s poetic, funny, solemn, hard working, and the city of big shoulders with just the right hint of danger.
"The Chicago Landmark Project" presented by Theatre Seven runs through July 10th at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Program A will run Thursdays -Saturdays at 7:30pm. Program B will run Fridays and Saturdays at 9:00pm and Sundays at 2:30pm. For more information call 773-404-7336 or visit www.theatreseven.com
Note: It’s great as a child’s first exposure to grown up theater but the children should be 10 and up. Someone brought a baby to the show. I love babies and feel that children should be exposed as early as possible to the theater. However, if they are still wearing diapers and prone to cute monosyllabic babbling-please find a sitter. You deserve to enjoy both parts and hear every great line.