Chicago Theater Review: ECSTASY (Cole Theatre Company at A Red Orchid Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 26, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

A POWERFUL PLAY EVEN WITH A PLOT AS POINTLESS AS ITS PEOPLE

With Ecstasy, now being revived at A Red Orchid Theatre, a new Chicago theater succeeds at first: Cole Theatre Company establishes its roots in realism with a play that’s older than most of the actors. Made famous in 1997 by Roadworks Productions’ trenchant Midwest premiere of this potent work by English playwright/film director Mike Leigh (Abigail’s PartySecrets & Lies, All or Nothing, Life Is Sweet) exposes the dead-end lives of twenty-something Brits, here gathered in North London from all parts of the queendom. Much like Steppenwolf Theatre’s recent This Is Our Youth, Ecstasy is an action portrait of dead-end slackers cracking up on their own contradictions.

Boyd Harris as Mick, Michaela Petro as Val and Layne Manzer as Len in Cole Theatre’s ECSTASY, by Mike Leigh, directed by Shade Murray.

But, unlike Jim Cartwright’s similarly-themed Road (1986), no anti-Thatcher rage fuels (or mars) this slo-mo group canvas from 1979. Here bleak is beautiful; this implacable study of sad-sack slackers more properly resembles that disillusioning British documentary series, 7-Up.

Boyd Harris as Mick and Michaela Petro as Val in Cole Theatre’s ECSTASY, by Mike Leigh, directed by Shade Murray.

Set in a self-destructing London flat with the requisite telly and appliances that require feeding a meter, Leigh’s gritty slice of loss depicts a generation given up to reflexive sex (and, yes, nudity), the pursuit of a pint at the pub and the self-defeating nostalgia of the not-yet-old.

Layne Manzer as Len, Michaela Petro as Val, Boyd Harris as Mick and Maura Kidwell as Jean in Cole Theatre’s ECSTASY, by Mike Leigh, directed by Shade Murray

Leigh focuses on burnt-out Jean (Maura Kidwell), a spent young lady who works in a petrol station and has a loveless brush with a married sot (Joel Reitsma) and his enraged wife (Lauren Pizzi). The result is a symbolically busted bed. In the deliberately aimless second act full of small talk about old times, Jean spends an evening boozing on Harp beer, singing, listening to Elvis, exposing their casual racism, and reminiscing with her garrulous chum Dawn (Michaela Petro) and Dawn’s crude but comforting Irish husband (Boyd Harris). When these four get snookered, it’s so convincing it’s contagious.

Layne Manzer as Len, Michaela Petro as Val, Boyd Harris as Mick and Maura Kidwell as Jean in Cole Theatre’s ECSTASY, by Mike Leigh, directed by Shade Murray. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The typically inconclusive end has Jean almost making love with awkward Len (Layne Manzer), the seemingly successful lad who Jean hastily dismissed in high school.

Boyd Harris as Mick, Michaela Petro as Val and Maura Kidwell as Jean in Cole Theatre’s ECSTASY, by Mike Leigh, directed by Shade Murray.

Michaela Petro as Val and Boyd Harris as Mick in Cole Theatre’s ECSTASY, by Mike Leigh, directed by Shade Murray.It makes sense that Ecstasy (an ironic title that makes no allusion to the drug) was improvised into existence; the lives here certainly are. Shade Murray understands disaffected ex-youth: His flawless staging captures, besides the characters’ disparate (and sometimes incomprehensible) accents, their drift and despair, the bursts of mordant humor and, best of all, much that’s felt but never shared.

Her face drained of color and eyes vacant, Kidwell offers up Jean as a human sacrifice to hard luck. As Petro and Harris deliver robust comic relief, Mazner becomes a cipher impotent with good intentions. Grant Sabin’s intimate, cut-away digs nicely trap Jean in her own stuff. At the end she and Len find separate sleep and no sex in the same room. Looking for love, Jean is stuck shagging bad boys and pushing away good guys. It ain’t over yet.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Boyd Harris as Mick and Maura Kidwell as Jean in Mike Leigh's ECSTASY by Cole Theatre. Photo by Michael BrosislowEcstasy
Cole Theatre Company
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3:00
scheduled to end on September 28, 2014
for tickets, call (773) 747-6821
or visit www.coletheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 1 comment }

Mary Pat September 20, 2014 at 7:27 am

I absolutely loved this! Pleasantly surprised, I was drawn into the play, caught up in the life taking place in the small apartment. The characters were hypnotizing, I hardly looked away. In the end I wish I could of stayed with my new characters. A must if you are in the city for a night out. I would love to watch again.

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