Chicago Reviews

Lifeline’s “The Man Who Was Thursday” is a very funny satire that is perfect for our times

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

I found a cartoon on Facebook this evening. In the top panel, labeled “Reality 50 Years Ago,” a Democrat and a Republican look at a sideways number on the ground. “Nine,” says the Democrat, which is accurate from his perspective. The Republican, though, sees it as “six.” The second panel, labeled “Reality Today,” shows the same two men and the same sideways number. This time, though, when the Democrat says “nine,” the Republican says “four.” The cartoonist is clearly making fun of the way that, in this era, we are far more interested in forcefully stating our own opinions than in whether or not they are true, and heedless of the danger that such insanely dogmatic antagonism might create. I was reminded of that cartoon while watching Lifeline Theatre’s newest production, The Man Who Was Thursday.

The Man Who Was Thursday, adapted from a satirical novel by GK Chesterton by Bilal Dardai of the Lifeline Artistic Ensemble, is a brisk and silly play that trades in misperception and lies. It takes place, for the most part, in pre-WWI England during a time when the fear of the day was not immigrants or transgender folk but anarchists, who, despising political order and ready to assassinate leaders and bomb plazas, at least were deserving of that fear. It begins in a London park, where Lucian Gregory (Cory Hardin), a local poet and self-proclaimed verbal anarchist, is reciting his lines to general acclaim. Another poet, Gabriel Syme (Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo), enters the park and quickly gets the best of Gregory. After the crowd disperses, Gregory feels the need to redeem himself and offers to show Syme a dark secret: he actually is a part of a secret society of anarchists with plans to cause real destruction, a society run by a cabal of seven leaders with codenames of the days of the week. In fact, Gregory reveals, his section is meeting tonight to elect a new “Thursday” to replace their old council member who has passed away. In no time, Syme (who is secretly a recent recruit to the Scotland Yard anti-anarchist squad) tricks them all into making him the next Thursday, and it’s off to the races.

At the council, which is run by a mysterious man named Sunday (Allison Cain), Syme almost immediately witnesses the outing of another police infiltrator, Tuesday (Christopher M. Walsh), who is allowed to leave because Sunday believes that the threat of a gruesome death works better than the actual death for control. Syme is also introduced to the other members of the council: Monday (Marsha Harman), the secretary; a frightening Saturday in great steampunk glasses (Jen Ellison); Wednesday (Corrbette Pasko), a French Marquis who is an expert at swordplay as well as blowing things up; and a German professor with a huge beard who takes the role of Friday (Linsey Falls) but quickly is revealed to be something other than what he claims to be. Lies and false identities abound in this play, and even though the plot is entirely predictable it is great fun watching it play out. Dardai’s script keeps Chesterton’s humor intact, and the high-quality ensemble (which also features Sonia Goldberg and Oly Oxinfry) does the rest, with the aid of a solid makeup crew.

Director Jess Hutchinson retains tight control over all of the strings in this intentionally over the top piece, wringing some excellent performances out of her ensemble, many of whom play multiple roles, and keeping the pace quick and alive. Christopher Kriz provides original music and excellent sound design, and Eric Watkins has great fun lighting Lizzie Bracken’s two-story set. (One long “underground” scene is lit entirely by a tiny flame like a cigarette lighter. In another scene, in sharp contrast, the false proscenium lights up like the French flag.)

At a time when truth and reality are being challenged on a near daily basis by our politicians, when we have leaders who intentionally lie to us and mislead us in obvious ways, when claiming that nine is four sadly wouldn’t even seem surprising, a satire about deception seems well-timed. And one of its central issues is very familiar: if everyone is worrying about playing games with reality, who is minding the store? Where are the leaders who are to protect us from the actual dangers when the ones we have are so concerned about made-up “emergencies” and making mountains of molehills? That question leads to a shocking ending that, while brilliantly done, is the one false note of the production: it is far too abrupt both in its arrival and its denouement. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take much away from a play that understands its own outrageous concept and runs with it. It may seem like a detective story, but truly this is a very funny satire that will have you laughing heartily…as long as you don’t take it seriously.

The Man Who Was Thursdayis a Lifeline Theatre production now playing at 6912 N. Glenwood, Chicago, until Apr 7. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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