Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Lindsay Williams.
The Odessa catacombs are a multi-level series of mining tunnels running under the city and its immediate environs. The system twists and turns and climbs and falls, folding back on itself to such a confusing degree that no one has ever fully mapped it, but it is said that there are 1500 miles of tunnels, making it easily the most extensive such system in the world. All in all, it doesn’t sound like a pleasant place to be lost. In 2009, it was reported that a student named Masha had wandered into the catacombs with friends after a night of partying. For whatever reason, the report said, she was separated from her group and left in the labyrinth, where she died. No one knows the veracity of that story, but it illustrates the dangers of the place.
There is a Masha in Right Brain Project’s Odessa as well, a perky Ukrainian teenager who wants nothing more than to party in the depths of the catacombs. Played by Alison Schaufler, Masha serves as a sort of warm-up act for what is basically a two-person play. Her ebullience and friendly, warm demeanor (not to mention an endearing accent that, to my lay ears, at least seemed that it could be Ukrainian) invite the audience into the RBP’s version of the catacombs: platforms going every which way around and among the audience in the tiny Otherworld Theatre on Clark St. Since Schaufler’s role is largely (or maybe completely) improvisational, it falls entirely to the actress to introduce this world to the audience, and she does a wonderful job, leading us into the theatre, helping us to “see” that we are in the deep depths below Odessa, and setting up the whole “party” story that the main character falls for. By the time her role is through and a flashlight in the dark finds the beaten and comatose form lying in the catacombs, we are right there with them.
The form on the ground is that of an American journalist, Andrew (Logan Hulick). The flashlight is held by another Ukrainian woman, Dariya (Hannah Williams), who hours earlier had led Andrew into these catacombs to rob him with her boyfriend Boris on the pretext of taking him to a party. In the intervening time, though, she has decided to return and help him escape what surely would have been his death without her. (Of course, she wants something in return, but we don’t find out what it is until better than halfway through the play.) Andrew may not trust her, but (as she tells him) he really has no choice but to go with her.
The problem for Andrew is that the combination of being drugged and beaten has left him with an unreliable mind subject to aural and visual hallucinations, and part of the fun for the audience is the realization that things that we are watching may only be happening in his mind. The problem for Dariya is that she has mislaid her compass, and suddenly she’s as in the dark about how to get out as Andrew is. We watch as they wander around the theatre, up and down platforms, trying to navigate by miner’s markings hidden among the vast array of graffiti on the walls. It’s fascinating for awhile but it does get repetitive, and since they will be behind any given audience member for a significant amount of time, it also runs into visual issues. (Not among them, interestingly, is the flashlight lighting design of Becs Bartele, which is actually very effective.)
Director Colin David keeps the play moving along and gets some excellent performances from both Hulick and Williams as the (literally) broken journalist and his captor/guide. Playwright Michaela Heidemann’s dialogue runs the gamut from comic to highly dramatic, and Hulick and Williams are adept at both. Hulick, bleeding from the face in some nice makeup work by Raquel Rosen, takes us through just about every possible emotion as his character tries desperately to come to grips with his situation. His anger is palpable at the start, but as Dariya continues winding their way toward what they both hope will be freedom, there are many lighter moments and even a hint or two that he might come to like her.
Williams, too, is put through the wringer during the show. At first cold and apparently detached (except for the fact that she did, after all, return for him), Dariya is just mysterious enough that we don’t know quite what she is thinking or why she is acting as she does, and Williams plays her with both a sparkle and an underlying sense of menace. (Her accent, BTW, is the same as Masha’s, so if it isn’t right there is at least verisimilitude. Actually both actors—and dialect coach Nikki Hartung—deserve some kudos for this; it’s not an easy accent and keeping it consistent is an accomplishment.)
After following these two throughout the catacombs for eighty minutes or so (and honestly there are only so many variations of up/down/around/over/under to be found) the play breaks into a final sequence that provides an ending but strains credulity. It feels as if Heidemann was just looking for a way to get out of the labyrinth she had written herself into.
Throughout the play, sound designer Brandan Monte provides haunting and mysterious background sounds, many of them akin to a heartbeat: the catacomb, which Dariya at one point says is alive, is a dark third character in this comedy/drama. Heidemann and David help solidify this concept with both the powerful performances of the main characters and the reappearance of Schaufler, first as an apparition of Andrew’s mother and then as a dead body, perhaps the Masha of the legend: the depths of the catacomb’s mysteries are only hinted at, but it’s enough.
Odessa doesn’t work all the time. There is that repetitive movement problem that suggests the play might have been better ten minutes or so shorter. But these fine young actors are determined to make it work as much as they can control, and all of the design elements in this low-budget production work well. I commend RBP for trying such a risky production—the whole thing might have failed for any number of reasons—and bringing it off. It’s an inventive production with some excellent performances, and if I can’t whole-heartedly recommend it I can point out that the tiny audience I was with appeared to have a good time, and ultimately that’s what the show is for.
Odessa is a Right Brain Project production now playing at the Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N Clark St, Chicago, until Oct 6. Performance times vary; check the website at Right Brain Project for tickets, schedule and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.