Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by The House Theatre.
George S. Kaufman famously said that “satire is what closes on Saturday night.” While he was clearly exaggerating (Kaufman’s own musical satire, Of Thee I Sing, was highly successful), there is no doubt that satire is a hit or miss concept in theatre. While comedy has a built-in audience and serious drama fills houses, satire, which occupies a strange in-between land where things are often funny but their meaning is serious (and not necessarily obvious), is for some people an acquired taste.
I mention this because The House Theatre’s new production, Borealis, is not only a satire but a particularly dense one. Its central premise is that corporate America has become a monster that devours its employees, making them less than the human beings they had been as they seek to feed the endless jargon-fueled beast that worships at the altar of “the Ten R’s” (reinvent, reimagine, etc.). Borealis follows a thirteen-year-old girl named Cozbi (the sublime Tia Pinson) who receives a highly redacted letter from her brother who works for an oil company. The letter seems to suggest that Absalom (Desmond Gray) had somehow fallen in thrall of the very corporate environment that he had promised his sister would soon be in their past, and Cozbi decides to brave the Alaskan winter, infiltrate the company, and save her brother.
We watch as Cozbi, using an axe left at home by her brother, fights her own vision of the corporate monster (very literally translated as creatures with tentacles or mysterious glowing red eyes or powerful serpent-like tails) to find him and is consistently rebuffed in her attempt, further convincing her that he is in deep trouble. Aided by a kind commissary worker (Karissa Murrell Myers), Cozbi finally faces off with a corporate bigwig named Burke (McKenzie Chinn) and her minions (Johnny Arena, Paige Hoffman and Ben Hertel) for Absalom’s very soul.
This is a visually arresting play. Scenic designer Eleanor Khan has created a futuristic set lit by Lee Keenan that surrounds the audience, immersing us in the proceedings. Costume designer Izumi Inaba expresses the various parts of the corporate behemoth with creative, imaginative costumes. Projections by Joseph Burke help us to visualize the desolation of northern Alaska during a “blizzicane” and the beauty of the Aurora Borealis. (Another portmanteau created by playwright Bennett Fisher is the delightful “cronumuffaroon,” a combination of croissant, donut, muffin and macaroon that frankly sounds delicious. I hope someone actually invents one; I’ll be first in line.) Sound designer Sarah D. Espinoza and composer Matthew Muñiz do much to drive the action. And Monty Cole directs with an eye toward the bizarre nature of the production, whisking us from location to location as Cozbi winds her way toward her brother. (The lone exception to this is when Cole utilizes a large suspended platform; it takes a very long time to move into place.)
Ultimately, though, we come back to Kaufman’s cautionary line. Though the actors are uniformly outstanding, too often the audience is left confused about just what they are seeing. It’s quite funny, to be sure, to hear corporate double-speak skewered and the various silly costumes are great fun as well, but too many of the fight scenes drag on too long and too often the point of the moment we are watching is unclear. This is an ambitious production for The House Theatre (one they actually call a “synergistic knowledge transfer” instead of a play, which I have to admit is a wonderfully ridiculous euphemism). If it didn’t fully succeed for me, well, that’s one of the risks of satire too. Perhaps it will be more successful for others; certainly a significant portion of the audience I was with seemed to enjoy it. For me, though, the whole never quite became equal to the sum of its parts, and some of those parts never quite came together in the whole. Still, Borealis is a show that you’ll be pondering and discussing as you leave the theatre. (In fact, I liked it better upon reflection than I did sitting in the audience.) Without a doubt it is the product of much planning and hard work, but whether you will like it depends upon your taste for satire.
Borealis is a House Theatre presentation now playing at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago, until Oct 21. Performance times vary; check the website at House Theatre for tickets, schedule and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.