Chicago Theater Review: IVYWILD (The Hypocrites at Chopin Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on May 7, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of The Hypocrites' "Ivywild" at Chopin Theatre.The more I think about the Hypocrites’ latest theater spectacle, Ivywild, the more entranced I feel about the imaginative proceedings – the way in which the story was told – and the less I care about the story itself.  In an impressionistic, non-concrete manner, playwright Jay Torrence tells the tale of “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, a true-life Chicago alderman who constructed an amusement park and zoo on a tract of land named Ivywild, just outside of Colorado Springs. The “Zoological Park” existed from 1906 to 1916. We know little about Bathhouse after the 90-minute play — told chronologically in poetic, Vaudevillian-like snippets — but as portrayed in this muddled outing at the Chopin Theater, he was an oddball eccentric.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of The Hypocrites' "Ivywild" at Chopin Theatre.A confusing narrative begins right at the top when we hear that Bathhouse John “partnered” with another alderman named Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, but we have no idea what that really means, even as the dialogue is rich in homoerotic anachronistic innuendos. John is played by Torrence as a mischievous and harmless queen, placing his finger on his pouting lips like a 50s sex kitten, but whether Bathhouse John was gay or not doesn’t seem to really matter. Indeed, If Torrence is attempting to fill in the gaps left by the incomplete annals of history, he is hardly elucidating the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-century Chicago that nourished characters such as Bathhouse. Nor is he creating a backstory for the apparently vice-ridden man who seems part shady politician and part adventurous, loveable, optimistic American dreamer. It seems to me that Torrence and his Hypocrites cronies just want to have fun.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of The Hypocrites' "Ivywild" at Chopin Theatre.With Halena Kays at the helm, the Chopin Theater is turned into an imaginarium with the look of a Victorian Penny Dreadful, but not as disturbingly horror-filled as Grand Guignol (although Tien Dornan, who plays a tuberculosis-ridden embodiment of the amusement park, does look a bit like a corpse, and her feathered tutu (astounding costumes by Alison Siple) is stained with blood). Lizzie Bracken’s dark fantasy Carnivàle-type set includes a rusty, old carousel with two swings, a creepy door to (we presume) the afterlife, and antique filament bulbs. The funhouse atmosphere is made all the more wondrous, imaginative and transportive by the five extraordinarily game performers, especially Anthony Courser as the anthropomorphized drunken, snub-trunked elephant named Princess. The ensemble — all of whom are terrific clowns — flips, sings, operates clever little machines, and more. How strange to be so moved by the talent on and behind the scenes, and so unmoved by the script.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of The Hypocrites' "Ivywild" at Chopin Theatre.I invite The Hypocrites (or any of the many Fringe-styled theater outings who create style over substance) to think about their audience more: My theatergoing companions and I sat around afterwards contemplating the story’s gaps: If Bathhouse opened this menagerie in 1906 and had already lived in Colorado for years beforehand, how did he do his duties in Chicago? Did he take a train back and forth? Who ran the zoo in his stead? Why is it implied that Bathhouse and Hinky Dink (Ryan Walters) are lovers, and who is this young man named Walt Coburn (Kurt Chiang) that becomes an assistant to Bathhouse in Colorado? Questions, questions and more questions can have a numbing effect on an audience, even as we are distracted and often impressed by the tongue-in-cheek fun and occasionally sweet theatrical shenanigans. And even though the performers take a few audience members for a spin on the set, the storytellers never give the spectators a chance to get on the ride.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of The Hypocrites' "Ivywild" at Chopin Theatre.

photos by Matthew Gregory Hollis

The Hypocrites at Chopin Theater
scheduled to end on June 16, 2013
for tickets, call 773.525.5991 or visit

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{ 1 comment }

Fred June 2, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Jay Torrence did some unbelievable risk taking by working with characters that are not particularly likable but focused on a dream.

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