Chicago Theater Review: HELLCAB (Profiles)

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by Dan Zeff on November 18, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Hellcab opened in Chicago in 1992 for a 12-performance run and the immediate audience buzz had the show playing for the rest of the decade. Now it is is back at the Profiles Theatre to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary. To the legion of playgoers who flocked to the original production for nine years, nothing has changed. Will Kern’s play still offers a glimpse into the nastier side of humanity, or at least that segment of humanity looking for a taxi on a cold Christmas Eve in Chicago.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Hellcab at Profiles in Chicago

The site is a grungy Ford convertible that serves as a taxi operated by a young Russian immigrant trying to make a living during the holiday season by cruising the city for fares. There are 25 characters and 26 vignettes, some as short as a minute or two and the longest maybe six minutes (the total running time is 75 minutes). The taxi driver’s customers come and go, singly or in pairs or a couple of times as a threesome. There is no narrative and no plot. A few of the vignettes provide enough substance for the audience to extrapolate a possible storyline, but mostly the characters enter the cab, do their thing for a brief time, and exit.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Hellcab at Profiles in Chicago

Kern based Hellcab on his brief career as a Chicago cab driver. If what we see in his play is representative of his real life experiences on Chicago’s streets, the man earned a very hard dollar. His customers are a pungent collection of weirdoes, druggies, drunks, a pair of obnoxious visitors from New York City, and a couple so horny they take matters into their own hands, so to speak, before they can reach a motel. Also in the mix are a pair of bickering sisters, a pompous male lawyer, an oversexed female lawyer, a man who makes a brief and sinister appearance, a young born-again Christian couple with a sneaky nasty streak, and even a young woman dressed in a traditional alpine dirndl costume playing an accordion and singing Christmas carols like a refugee from The Sound of Music.

The 1990’s production and later revivals throughout the world used one actor as the taxi driver and six supporting performers who played the characters rotating in and out of the cab. At the Profiles, 33 actors play the various characters. The actor may have as little as 100 seconds to nail his or her character before disappearing into the night. There is no time to build motivation or establish relationships. This is smash-and-grab acting.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Hellcab at Profiles in Chicago

While Hellcab is an extended situation rather than a conventional narrative, the play does provide a cumulative impact, namely that the human race is populated by some pretty bizarre characters. The play offers a racially and ethnically diverse menagerie, the characters short on eloquence and long on speaking their minds with the abundant use of four-letter words. Most of the vignettes lean toward the comic, but there are some creepy moments and the action occasionally turns poignant, as in the appearance of a man still grieving after his mother’s death from cancer, and a young woman in an almost catatonic state after just being raped by an acquaintance. The brevity of their appearances allows the characters only a single basic emotion, like anger or hostility or lust or loneliness. There are very few characters in the play that are content with their lot in life, but Hellcab wouldn’t have much audience appeal displaying a homogenized collection of satisfied middle class white folks.

The only developed figure in the play is the taxi driver, a young man who has a jaundiced view of his fellow man, and woman. And based on the seedy clientele he serves on this night, who can blame him? The play does end on an upbeat note that I found tacked on. The only reason for the driver to be happy is that he survived the night.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Hellcab at Profiles in Chicago

Other than the driver, played by Konstantin Khrustov as a man understandably living on his nerve ends, the only continuing character in Hellcab is the battered Ford. The car is a beater ready for the junkyard, like some of the disheveled characters in the play, though it does have working headlights and very loud radio music pumped in from the theater sound booth. The car also invites speculation about how the Profiles staff ever shoehorned the auto onto the stage. The vehicle occupies virtually the entire acting space, with graffiti and gang signs decorating the enclosing walls (a superbly atmospheric urban environment created by set designer Shaun Renfro). The locations shift through various Chicago neighborhoods, including some fancy addresses on the near north side, but the overall feeling is that we are observing a vision of the lower depths straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

The 33 performers who surround Khrustov generally do a solid job of projecting their characters within the minimal amount of time allotted. Applause to Profiles for employing so many performers when a half dozen would have gotten the job done just as well. This way the audience can enjoy actors of all shapes and skin hues to underscore the montage quality of the play, plus the actors each get a nice entry on their resumes. The massed curtain call of the entire ensemble is an impressive sight.

Director Darrell W. Cox, assisted by Eric Burgher and Harmony France, does a fine job of sustaining the show’s momentum and keeping the tensions high. No surprises there. This is the kind of show that has elevated the Profiles to its niche as the preeminent purveyor of edgy realistic modern theater in the area. In addition to Renfro’s set, the production profits from Mike Durst’s atmospheric lighting, Jeffrey Levin’s hard rock sound design and original music, and especially Raquel Adorno’s eclectic wardrobe of costumes.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Hellcab at Profiles in Chicago

photos by Michael Brosilow

Profiles Main Stage
ends on December 23, 2012
EXTENDED to February 24, 2013
for tickets, call 773 549 1815 or visit Profiles

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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