Chicago Theater Review: MAI DANG LAO (Sideshow Theatre Company at Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 11, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

TAKE-OUT THEATER

“This is not how I thought my future would be.” Bittersweet, broken-spirited, resigned to mediocrity, that lament fits all the characters in David Jacobi’s inexplicably named Mai Dang Lao, a world premiere from Sideshow Theatre Company. What Steppenwolf Theatre’s The Flick did for low-wage popcorn sweepers at a cineplex, this much shorter (85 minutes) show does to fast-food wage slaves at a McDonald’s: It seeks design amid the futility.

LaNisa Renee Frederick in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere MAI DANG LAO by David Jacobi, directed by Marti Lyons. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.

A laundry list of work-related humiliations, diluted in shop and small talk, Jacobi’s slice-of-drudgery finally fastens on a true incident. He means, it seems, to send a familiar message about the American dream, otherwise called the law of diminishing returns: In status showdowns, the pretense of power can corrupt, especially when it’s not attached to accountability. Marti Lyons’ laser-focused staging makes it real, which is not the same as making it matter.

Sarah Price and Matt Fletcher in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere MAI DANG LAO by David Jacobi, directed by Marti Lyons. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.

Jacobi throws ill-assorted indignities into his hopper: on-the-job sexual harassment; an irate customer who throws milkshakes into the drive-through window; another who sullenly parks at a distance and demands the food be brought to him; a chemically altered slacker employee who, cutting himself, must take a drug test before he can go to a hospital; and non-work-related phone calls frowned on by middle management. In this demeaning and belittling world the simple news that it’s snowing outside seems a benediction.

Andrew Goetten, Sarah Price and Matt Fletcher in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere MAI DANG LAO by David Jacobi, directed by Marti Lyons. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.

But on this boring day an ugly event pits control-freak manager Roy (Matt Fletcher) against rebellious, twentysomething employee Sophie (Sarah Price). He’s all about “responsibility and respect, humility and acceptance” and finds this pretty worker insubordinate, lacking deference to his white shirt and ID badge. Not ready to sell her soul to Mickey D, Sophie is a sullen soul who just wants to earn enough to go to veterinary school.

Andrew Goetten, Tyler Meredith and LaNisa Renee Frederick in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere MAI DANG LAO by David Jacobi, directed by Marti Lyons. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.

Unequal in power and one-sided in passion, their relationship turns toxic when a phone call changes everything: A local cop calls in to alert the franchise about a case of employee theft. A policeman named Bill tells them that the force is too busy with criminal activity to send someone right away. So he instructs Roy and flustered flunky Kara (LaNisa Renee Frederick), a tough-loving mother figure, to strip-search Sophie for stolen cash–and to take pictures of the suspect, now in her lingerie, to be sent to the “police station.”

Andrew Goetten and Tyler Meredith in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere MAI DANG LAO by David Jacobi, directed by Marti Lyons. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.

What’s chilling here is how unquestioning and compliant are bewildered and pliable Kara and Roy’s sensing an opportunity to indulge his secret fantasies about this “entitled cunt.” Staying on the line with Bill, they slavishly follow his every demeaning instruction. (Blind obedience, I guess, automatically comes with the service industry.) They never question, as the audience does from the start, that this could be—as the incident was—a sadistic hoax perpetrated by a sick and cowardly voyeur.

Matt Fletcher and Sarah Price in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere MAI DANG LAO by David Jacobi, directed by Marti Lyons. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.

Jacobi, however, is not interested in exploring the context of the real crime that’s committed here. It’s more important to expose how this eatery’s workplace atmosphere is already fascistic and authoritarian. So it’s no stretch when its rigidity morphs into a vigilante citizen’s arrest. Here “taking orders” means a lot more than selling Value Meals.

LaNisa Renee Frederick, Andrew Goetten and Matt Fletcher in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere MAI DANG LAO by David Jacobi, directed by Marti Lyons. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.

Regrettably, there’s not enough at stake here to make Mai Dang Lao compelling and unavoidable. But, fully as tight as Steppenwolf’s cleaning crew, Sideshow’s believable ensemble—Price, Fletcher, Frederick, Tyler Meredith, Andrew Goetten, and Jim Poole (as the voice-over caller)–work well together (even when they’re not meant to). Price is especially affecting as an innocent dreamer who’s meant for more. But Jacobi sheds no light on the actual event (which has apparently happened more than once). It’s just one more case of blue-collar bad luck. No, this is not the future anyone thought they’d get. Welcome to America.

photos by Jonathan L. Green

Mai Dang Lao
Sideshow Theatre Company
Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3:00
ends on April 10, 2016
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more theater info, visit Theatre in Chicago

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