Small World at Chicago’s Den Theatre

I ended up free yesterday afternoon since Midori’s matinee at Symphony Center was cancelled due to the striking Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Happily, I was able instead to take in a new production of The New Colony, a local theatre company that focuses on new works.  Small World is currently playing at The Den, a storefront theatre in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.  The play was written by Jillian Jeff and Joe Lino and directed by Andrew Hobgood.  It also features one of my colleagues as one of the three players.

Small World takes its title from the Disney song It’s a Small World after All – the play finds its way to my blog due to the musical theme.  In fact, the simple tune plays nonstop throughout the production.  It’s a one-act play that doesn’t change scenes or characters – the small cast plays the crew of Disney’s Small World ride at the theme park.  They have become stranded in the ride’s labyrinthine interior due to some apocalyptic occurrence in the world beyond that is never made clear.  A dirty bomb is speculated, as is a small but likely too inept to be effective anti-Disney cult.

As the characters navigate the impossible problem of being stuck in the interior of a theme park ride that is at once collapsing, on fire, and offering them shelter from the potentially more fatal outer world, human nature is put to the test.  One is a Pollyanna sporting a leg that is impaled on a large pole through the duration of the show.  Another is a young woman running from a small-town culture unsupportive of her same-sex relationship.  The third is a paranoid young man railing against the corporate machine, epitomized by the Disney overlords.

The song from which Small World takes its title plays on repeat through the duration of the play, as I assume it also does on the Disney theme park attraction that bears its name.  Two of the three characters are united in a desire to stop the music, and they momentarily succeed by disabling the speaker from which the music is playing with some well-lobbed debris.  But the music quickly returns from another speaker that becomes activated with a shifting of the ride’s infrastructure due to some unseen external forces.

Humor is attempted throughout the play, but the dire circumstances and the horror-like plotline (a corpse also finds its way onstage for much of the length of the production) for me caused the laugh lines to fall mostly flat.  Many people, of the type who genuinely find horror movies funny, would be able to laugh, and much of yesterday’s audience did.  The set is well-suited to the subject matter, and the costuming and makeup – the blood and grease of messed-up bodies and theme-park rides – are well executed.  The actors, all three onstage and totally ON throughout the play’s single 85 minute act, do a tremendous job maintaining the high energy and stress called for in the situation.

Rarely do playwrights so transparently employ the writer’s device of taking some regular people and subjecting them to stress and showing the outcome.  Two of the three are regular enough people, not too archetypal.  The exception is the straight white male survivalist cult member, whose actions are predictable throughout.  The play flirts with farce, though it’s interspersed with poignant moments pondering princesses, dreams, and causality.  Small Worlds exist for all of us, and often they are not what we’d wish.  Sometimes, there is no getting off the ride.

I had never been to The Den before – there is a spacious bar/coffee shop, open to patrons regardless of the day’s production or lack thereof.  The box office is in another large room adjacent to the café.  Overall, the space is much larger and more accommodating than many storefront theatres.  The mainstage seats seventy and is up a large flight of stairs on the building’s second floor, itself just off an ante-room that’s surprisingly large and accommodating.  The chairs in the theatre are even comfortable.  As Chicago’s storefront theatre scene goes, the venue is quite nice.

Small World plays through May 4 at the Den Theatre in Chicago.

Thanks for reading.

Ryan

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