Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Lindsay Williams.
Nicky Silver’s Raised in Captivity is a play of paradoxes. It is humorous but very dark. Its characters are not particularly likable but yearn to belong. In its absurd juxtapositions, it seeks both to entertain and provoke. It paints a fairly bleak worldview yet, like one of its characters, it uses only white paint, ensuring a result that is open to interpretation. In short, Silver is playing with his audience, challenging them to come along for a roller coaster ride of emotions. With little need for an elaborate set, this might seem a perfect kind of play for a small storefront theatre to tackle, and in many ways Right Brain Project does get the play right, with strong acting throughout.
Whether or not you find it successful might depend entirely on your tolerance for the strange combination of whimsical concepts and serious subjects. This is a play in which we are told that the main characters’ mother dies after a violent collision with a loose shower head, but it is also a play in which two men end Act One with very serious interlocking monologues about death. It is a play in which a deranged psychologist falls overwhelmingly in love with her patient and punishes herself physically for it, but it is also a play that treats her disability as a source of humor. It’s a play in which a character is nearly murdered onstage and ends up institutionalized, but it is also a play in which that character is probably the sanest and healthiest one. Heck, this play features a dentist who hates teeth: contradictions abound here.
Some of this is very well played on an ultra-minimalistic set (as in: let’s see how clever we can be with six boxes) by a talented company of actors. As the twins with the dead mother, Hannah Williams (Bernadette) and Joel Collins (Sebastion) are studies in opposition. She is all manic energy and prone both to histrionics and sudden changes of attitude; her character is brilliant but a total mess. He is calm and composed as a broke gay writer who mourns the death of his lover from AIDS. That they clash is almost a given. And the fact that these twins have been estranged for many years seems completely reasonable.
Other main characters include Tyler Esselman as Kip, Bernadette’s husband and the aforementioned dentist. Esselman is serene as the contemplative Kip and does a fine job with what he is given, but he is prone to pausing before his many non-sequitur lines, ruining jokes that would have been much funnier if his pace had been quicker. Whether that is Esselman or director Kathy Kaity is open for debate, but Kaity should definitely have caught some key mispronunciations by her cast. (Williams at one point says “bonsmots” for bon mots, for example, which would be funny if her character were prone to such things, but she isn’t. In fact, she has a fine vocabulary.)
The other performers are Liz Goodson throwing herself wholly into the character of the crazed shrink, Vic Kuligoski as both Sebastian’s prisoner pen pal and a male hooker he picks up, and Laura Jones Macknin as Sebastian’s near-death vision of his mother. As I said before, all of the acting is excellent, and director Kaity has drawn strong characterizations from everyone.
My own issues with it stemmed from three sources, two of which are minor. The minor ones are that awkward pacing on some of the play’s funniest lines from Kip and the fact that the writing on the boxes (they are at first gravestones) was a real distraction when they were used for other things. These things kept pulling me out of the play, turning on my critic/director mind instead of my audience one. More important, though, is that I never ended up caring much about these people, an issue partly connected to direction but more likely caused by the script itself. In an absurdist play featuring seriously dichotomous types (the manic therapist and sister and the subdued husband and brother), I expected them to counterpoint each other more, but all of these characters seem to inhabit their own unique worlds, only tangentially connecting to the others. What makes an absurdist play work is the fact that, under the ridiculousness, one can sense inherent truths. (See lots of things by Albee.) Here, though, we just get disconnected characters. Perhaps that is the point: that we fail to make even the connections we ought to be making. Well, that is also the problem I have with the whole thing: it simply never connected to me.
Raised in Captivity is a Right Brain Project production now playing at the Frontier, 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago, until May 19. Performance times vary; check the website at Right Brain Project. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.