Somehow, amid a discussion with a friend yesterday about what would bring people to TheatRE, over TheatERs, Gordon Ramsey’s name popped up. Ramsey is that obnoxious, over-inflated vacuous personality, and part of the manufactured rage-porn that has overtaken our media, supplanting intellectual wound-jabbing for actual substance. Okay, I woke up a bit, well, who among us hasn’t wished for a victim of his profanity-laced tirades to turn the tables, so to speak. Given that, there is a deeply satisfying undertone to Steep Theatre’s latest production, Birdland, which runs through may 12th.
Simon Stephens’ Birdland, stunningly and expertly directed by Jonathan Berry, delivers that philosophical punch to the visceral justice we all secretly desire to see levied against the Ramsey’s and plastic celebs of the world. Sorry, needed to get that off my chest. Now, back to Birdland…
Birdland tells the story of Paul, Played brilliantly by Steep ensemble member Joel Reitsma, a British Pop superstar who has either abandoned or lost the empathy for others for stardom-enabled narcissism and sociopathy. Money is heaped upon him by a predatory record company, while fandom and pandering tabloids conspire to isolate and sharpen Paul’s narcissism, until even he cannot escape the feeling that he is some sort of cancerous individual; lost in his own personality and the over-hyped perceptions and expectations of his fans. People are toys for his amusement. Women are objects to be seduced and conquered to a lost soul. Paul turns as abusive as a petulant child whenever he meets resistance. What remains? At what cost? Paul soon discovers the answers to those perilous questions after betraying his one true friend.
So back to the original question. This is Theatre at its finest, in which there is no pretense of attempting to compete with movie screens, but instead keeping theatre intimate, visceral and a singularly unique and private experience for each and every show. There is not a weak spot in the cast, starting with Reitsma, who is on stage for the entire 2 hour performance, moving deftly and seamlessly from scene to scene. Dushane Casteallo as Johnny, Paul’s friend and collaborator, is smart and fluid and natural as he struggles to remain at Paul’s side.
Aila Peck is strong as Paul’s love interest, and his last opportunity at redemption, but I particularly enjoyed Aila with Cindy Marker as a pair of London detectives who confront Paul over a particularly nasty indiscretion. Peter Moore, as David and several other characters, is always fun to watch on stage, as the characters never seem to emanate from Moore, but rather flow through him. Jim Poole, however, was brilliant playing Paul’s affable and somewhat estranged, if naïve father. Poole, as a sad sack fan, becomes the target of Paul’s usery and cruelty in a powerfully telling scene. Overall, a great looking cast, with terrific energy and believable, even heartbreaking relationships.
Dialectic coach Kathy Logelin makes the story believable with accents in French, Russian and British English; a crucial and critical aspect of the story. Joe Schermoly’s set design beautifully showcases the story, while Brandon Wardell’s lightening helps build the story’s emotional tempo. Indeed, and I’ve said it before, Steep is a jewel in the Chicago Theatre community. Every show feels big and expansive and satisfying.
If you only see one play at Steep Theatre, making it this one. As an incredibly influential member of the liberal media, there was a ticket waiting for me on opening night. I am already anticipating a return to see this amazing play with the wife. It’s that good.
Birdland, runs through May 12th. Steep Theatre is just steps from the Red Line, at 1115 West Berwyn in Chicago. Call (773) 649-3186, or visit steeptheatre.com for tickets and info.
WC Turck is cohost of @Playtime with Bill Turck and Kerri Kendall, Chicago’s only commercial radio program focused fully on the Arts. The show can be heard Sundays from 1-3pm on AM1590 WCGO in Evanston.