Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Tempestuous Telemarketing: 'Spirits to Enforce' Uses Superheroes to Sell Theater, but Doesn't Fully Soar -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Spirits to Enforce
a play by Mickie Maher
directed by Will Quam
Passage Theater
at Berry Methodist Church, Chicago
Thru November 17

I can't say I loved Spirits to Enforce and--admittedly not well-versed in Shakespeare's The Tempest, which weaves through it--perhaps didn't completely understand it.

But I really liked seeing it.

And from what I could grasp, I think that's much of the point being made, including in a life imitates art (or vice-versa) sort of way.

Within the play, 12 people are onstage the whole time, sitting at one long table being used as a phone bank.

We soon learn that the dozen, generally young and of various races and ethnicities, are superheroes--collectively known as the Fathomtown Enforcers--or at least individuals blessed with superhuman traits.

Having recently defeated a nemesis, the Enforcers are holed up in an underwater submarine, charged with a seemingly much more mundane task, but one proving quite challenging.

They--including Ariel (played by Peter Andersen), the Ocean (Mikey Gray), the Page (Jin Park) and the Untangler (Preston Choi)--are making calls to raise funds and sell tickets for a production of The Tempest that they are staging and starring within.

Pretty much the entirety of the 95-minute one-act consists of one-sided telephone conversations, often overlapping.

The conceit--by playwright Mickie Maher, who wrote Spirits to Enforce in 2003--is certainly unique, and though it tends to drag in spots and extends a bit long, the script provides considerable humor and poignancy.

Despite presumably saving the lives of those answering the calls, the heroes--like presumably all telemarketers--are met with disinterest, scorn and worse, even after revealing their supernatural talents.

The characters each employ three names--given/hero/Tempest role, such as Randall/The Tune/Ferdinand (Nick Barnes), who self-consciously flirts with Susan/Memory Lass/Miranda (Morgan Burkey)--and I imagine there is more here for those who well-know The Tempest to appreciate than I picked up on.

But I came to feel for the heroes' unabashed love of theater, their discouragement, occasional despair and resiliency, with nice pluck shown in a speech by the Intoxicator (Jasmine Manuel) and many funny lines by the Snow Heavy Branch (Carey Morton). (Seen on the day Stan Lee died, an ad lib in tribute would have been welcome.)

I gleaned something of a "we should all feel like superheroes" vibe, or one of "even superheroes feel like shite sometimes," and all the actors do nice work. Those not yet mentioned include Chesa Greene (the Silhouette), Julianne Lang (the Bad Map), Tyler Anthony Smith (Frangrance Fellow) and Danny Turek (the Pleaser).

So I found Spirits to Enforce appealing if a good bit shy of sensational.

Yet in a week when I will also take in a return visit to Hamilton and attend opening night premieres of Twelfth Night and Mansfield Park--at Writers and Northlight theaters, respectively--I acutely relished a rare Monday night curtain of a little-known work being enthusiastically performed by talented young actors within a new troupe (Passage Theater) in the basement of a nondescript Lincoln Square church.

I appreciated Maher's advocating in an interview within the show program that audiences
experience Spirits to Enforce "as a piece of music," rather than a work with a singular, overarching message to derive.

This helped me like it in the moment more than I might have otherwise.

And whether within the play or beyond it, the idea that theater is something to be endeavored, supported, loved and grateful for is something I wholeheartedly applaud.

Even when I may not think it super, I still find it rather heroic. 

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