Chicago Theater Review: RED HANDED OTTER (A Red Orchid Theatre in Old Town)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 19, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Ethan Lipton is a magic maker who’s mastered the art of intertwining characters. The five lost and found souls in his 2012 offering Red Handed Otter are security-guard colleagues at an unnamed facility. They come together or fall apart as naturally as any rival representations from real life. The hilarious anecdotes they share, the love they can’t, their reflexive wariness and unforced kindness–these ring right in 90 credible minutes in A Red Orchid Theatre’s well-tuned Chicago premiere. Luce Metrius and Ashley Neil in RED HANDED OTTER (A Red Orchid in Chicago)Director Dado, a wizard at making actors shine, finds the quirky warmth in a potentially daffy script. It’s all rooted in five people looking for love. They chart its causes and courses just by being themselves.

Bustling with HD monitors and surveillance equipment, set designer Jim Moore’s control center seems very neutral ground for so much concentrated storytelling. The focus is on senior security cop Paul (Guy Van Swearingen, as authentic as it gets), a blue-collar stalwart who has just lost Jennifer, his beloved pet of 17 years. For Paul she was one of the top 5 cats of all time, changing his life even as she reordered it to her fickle fancies. The challenge for Paul’s fellow-workers is to get him out of his depression, maybe match him with a new top cat.

Younger associate Donald (Luce Metrius) takes Paul’s mind off his loss with a tale of the title otter who he tamed at 9, even giving it restful massages. For Angela (Ashley Neal), Paul’s ex-girl, Donald’s new one and an apprentice nurse, the pet preference was rabbits, easy to love but prone to wander. Randy (Bob Kruse) had a guinea pig Mierka Girten in RED HANDED OTTER (A Red Orchid in Chicago)and a hermit crab whose slow gait, he’s certain, was sometimes intentional. To everyone’s horror Estelle (Mierka Girten) never had a pet but hopes it’s not too late to discover her humanity through a different species. (But she does have a terrific tale about how she learned to live with a beeping smoke detector.)

In sweet, sharp scenes Lipton interweaves these friends’ ins and outs, amorous and professional. (Paul and Donald enjoy a wrestling match over Angela and stuff–it strangely shows how close they’ve come.) What’s really center stage is the dogged decency of five workmates. They throw a party to cheer up Paul where kind-hearted Donald offers him a “replacement” for Jennifer. This good deed launches Paul’s love/hate, approach/avoidance relationship with a creature who becomes “the cat of 1,000 cats.” (The feline seems to shape shift into a dozen other pets.) Paul‘s ambivalence over this splendidly independent, richly quixotic four-legged friend delivers the most charming confusion seen onstage.

Luce Metrius and Guy Van Swearingen in RED HANDED OTTER (A Red Orchid in Chicago)Lipton’s incredibly likable, intentionally episodic one-act is a love letter to the fluidity of affection–back and forth between and among friends and pets. Nothing decisive happens: The plot is so character-driven it defies any requirements for obligatory conflict or overarching themes. Van Swearingen simply fascinates us with his cranky, flinty Paul, a guy possessed with both a hunger for and fear of fondness. Sensitive without knowing it, Metrius’s Donald is so solicitous he’s the perfect pal. Kruse’s Randy works hard to fit in. (If good intentions were enough…) Girten makes Estelle’s smallest remarks stand for years of shared life among the workers. Neal’s Angela is so much more than an office fling: Like everyone here, we see her from herself and as they do, and, of course, that’s seldom the same.

It’s the kind of play that’s not afraid to be quiet. Lipton and Dado trust these characters not to bore us. Unlike dramas that pretend that dialogue is character, they won’t disappear when they don’t speak. They grow on you by being their unexpected selves. Plus, if you love cats for their complexity, curiosity and the purr-fect way they keep us real, Red Handed Otter is much more dinner dish than litter box.

Ashley Neil, Luce Metrius, Bob Kruse, and Guy Van Swearingen in RED HANDED OTTER (A Red Orchid in Chicago)

photos by Michael Brosilow

Red Handed Otter
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Ave
ends on May 24, 2015
for tickets, call (312) 943-8722 or visit

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