The traveling artists known as Collaboraction have finally found a permanent home: the Flat Iron Arts Building in Wicker Park. They’re putting it to good use, too, bringing to life Carlos Murillo’s cyber-drama Dark Play, or Stories for Boys. A Jeff-recommended play, this-teenage-angst-will-knock-your-socks-off piece is both original and well-acted, with a superb, fast-paced plot that manages to keep the audience enthralled even when the technical design and the script’s frayed edges become hard to digest.
You’d be hard pressed to find a play with a plot as compelling as Dark Play. Nick (Clancy McCartney), a troubled teenage computer genius, concocts a false female profile online in order to chat with a boy named Adam (Aaron Kirby). Through this online avatar, whom he calls “Rachel” (Olivia Dustman), Nick lures Adam into a relationship, and even into love, leading to an intensive examination of Nick’s character and an explosive set of climactic disturbances. There was no point in this play at which I was disinterested; waiting for even the smallest interaction kept me wonderfully baited.
The production’s powerful plot was supported by equally powerful acting. The play is written such that a separate actress plays “Rachel,” Nick’s online avatar, lending an interesting level of depth and dynamism to the acting and cast. The main cast, particularly the two leads, Aaron Kirby and Olivia Dustman, played their parts splendidly. Kirby maintained an admirably high level of performance for the duration of the play, leaving the theater in a deep sweat. The supporting actors, Jane deLaubenfels and Sorin Brouwers, provided well-placed comedic relief and, at times, dramatic monkey wrenches to the plot that kept the audience on its toes.
Speaking of being on one’s toes, the most fulfilling and well-directed portions of Dark Play revolved around the sexual tensions of the two boys. The image I recall most vividly is the cyber chat between “Rachel” and Adam; all three main actors lean against each other, groping for a closeness that is impossible to experience online, within a suffocating magenta light wash that manages to be simultaneously disturbing and intoxicating. These scenes were well-hashed and well-designed, all around. The voyeuristic elements of the script were incredibly disturbing—imagine feisty teens with a webcam—but allowed the director to manipulate the audience’s mind to a high degree of success.
Where the show falters is in the rest of the set design, in the “normal” mode of the stage. It is very difficult to portray the online world onstage, and for that reason most playwrights stay away from cyber-izing their work. Some, however, cannot resist the challenge. Murillo blends online chats with Nick’s narration and with the dialogue, and in most ways, it works—the audience is willing to separate what is what in their minds. But allowing chats to happen onstage creates a paradox; we can see the chatters, and they can see each other. Collaboraction’s design doesn’t account for the normal circumstances of not seeing the other person chatting, a problem which we, born in the texting age, are very familiar with. It is simply left to the imagination whether the characters react to what they see or to what they hear, which leaves many particularities unresolved and confusing. The script itself doesn’t offer assistance with understanding these moments, often leaving out helpful entrance and exit cues. This leaves the audience with a rather hard- to- swallow design in which one must actively suspend disbelief in order to mentally agree with the action of the stage. It would have been interesting to see Collaboraction construct a screen of some kind for the chat scenes; perhaps we, the audience, could see the chatters, but they couldn’t see one another.
At any rate, Dark Play is a very creative and emotionally overwhelming play that hooks the audience and doesn’t let go. This high-intensity new work is typical of Collaboraction but is also a part of the group’s initiative to ensconce themselves in the Flat Iron Arts Building. August of 2010 brought the creative ensemble to its new home and ushered in a new era—even now, the group intends to expand ist vision from one black box theater to a larger theater space elsewhere in the building. The larger space would certainly have changed this production, allowing for more efficient set changes and a more dynamic design. Perhaps Dark Play’s Jeff nomination will bring in new revenue for this talented team, and more work in this vein will be produced.