Death of a Harridan | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Death of a Harridan

A suicide sets in motion Beau O'Reilly's strong new epic about a dysfunctional American clan.


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Madelyn Dangles the Noose

WHEN Through 10/5: Fri 7 PM (Then Fri 10/19 and 10/26, 7 PM, Athenaeum Theatre)

WHERE Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston

PRICE $15, $20 for the full trilogy

INFO 773-539-7838

The McGuffins Run the 440

WHEN Through 10/6: Sat 7 PM (Then Sat 10/20 and 10/27 7 PM, Athenaeum Theatre)

WHERE Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston

PRICE $15, $20 for the full trilogy

INFO 773-539-7838

Hitting the Bricks

WHEN Through 10/7: Sun 5 PM (Then Sun 10/21 and 10/28 7 PM, Athenaeum Theatre)

WHERE Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston

PRICE $15, $20 for the full trilogy

INFO 773-539-7838

Over its 19 years Chicago's chronically underfunded, understaffed, overstuffed Rhinoceros Theater Festival has lumbered from Wicker Park to West Lakeview to East Rogers Park, barely eluding gentrification, audience attrition, and artist exhaustion. Two years ago this showcase of original fringe performance settled in at the Prop Thtr, on Elston's lonely industrial corridor. But then along came last week's hand-of-God storm, killing power at the Prop for three days and sending the Rhinocerites fleeing once again.

The festival was scheduled to open with its usual assortment of challenging works: two full-length autobiographical monologues (including Michael Martin's first since 2002), a "word jazz celebration" of Kerouac's On the Road, the first two installments of Idris Goodwin's "Danger Face Trilogy," and all three massive plays in Beau O'Reilly's family saga, "The Madelyn Trilogy." The power outage wiped out all openings on Friday and Saturday nights. But having heard that the Reader planned to review the show, curators O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus decided on Saturday morning to present all eight and a half hours of "The Madelyn Trilogy" the next day--they just had to find a vacant theater with electricity. Magnus's husband, Stefan Brun, put in a call to Jefferson Park's Irish American Heritage Center, where he helped build a black-box theater a couple years ago, and director John Daley agreed to hand over the keys. The company sent out e-mail blasts announcing an 11 AM curtain for the first play of three on Sunday. That day, O'Reilly and crew were frantically loading all their props, costumes, and set pieces into a U-Haul when the power came back on. They kept loading.

When I arrived at the Irish American Heritage Center at 10:30 AM the U-Haul was still half full. I held the front door open for ten minutes as several cast members tried, and failed, to fit a large flat through. By the time I reached the third-floor theater, some 25 actors were either changing their clothes, running lines, or pacing the stage trying to figure out who would go where. No one was in the audience. "Ten minutes!" O'Reilly announced. I claimed a spot in the back row--thanks to recent back troubles I would have to watch all eight and a half hours standing up, and if an audience member or two did arrive I didn't want to block anyone's view.

By 11:15 O'Reilly was giving a curtain speech to the dozen people in the house (several of whom showed up onstage later in the day). A few of the actors couldn't get out of work, he explained, so their last-minute replacements would be carrying scripts. We'd see the first two plays with a 30-minute intermission between them, then get an hour break for dinner, followed by the final three-act play. In an apparent effort to bring some sanity to the mayhem, he called the performances open rehearsals--"but that doesn't mean we're gonna stop and talk about our fuckups." He finished his speech, and the stage went dark. My legs were tired already.

A good script can withstand all odds, though. Not all the writing in these three plays is great--they can be obscure to the point of opacity. But O'Reilly has a unique feeling for the weird yet lyrical: he steps outside the bounds of reality yet remains within the confines of the human heart. In the opening scene of Madelyn Dangles the Noose, the lights come up on a woman in an upstage corner standing before a table covered with prescription bottles. Swigging champagne, she berates an ex-lover on her cell phone, then hangs up on him and cackles, "Cock like an elephant. Never forgets." After failing to slit her throat with a butter knife, she tries her hand at a suicide note. "Dear friends, you have been everything to me," she dictates to no one. "And that's not much."

This drunken heap of giddy misanthropy--she calls children "solipsistic mongrels" and religion "paternalistic vomit"--is Madelyn. Her ultimately successful suicide attempt is what brings members of the fractured, eccentric McGuffin clan into toxic proximity, first in Madelyn Dangles the Noose and for years to come in the second and third plays. In a cheeky subversion of the American family drama, the McGuffins aren't her family but her in-laws--her own family can't stand her. Madelyn is the ex-wife of two brothers: hulking, uncommunicative Michael McGuffin, crippled by the dissolution of their marriage 20 years earlier, and career lothario Peaches McGuffin, who dallied with Madelyn for two months before blithely moving on to his next conquest.

News of Madelyn's demise is delivered in a series of finely tuned two-person scenes in the first act of Madelyn Dangles the Noose. These introduce the six McGuffin siblings: not only Michael and Peaches but practical Joan, uptight brother Jobey, brazen sister Turnow, and inquisitive sister Moth. The first onstage is Joan, who gets the call while she's with her needy lover, Freddie. The second is Peaches, in bed with yet another woman. Madelyn's death interrupts both their stumbling attempts to find love: Joan gives up trying to placate Freddie and Peaches gives up trying to remember the name of the woman beside him. Throughout this play and the next, The McGuffins Run the 440, O'Reilly explores myriad interruptions to love: death, despair, ennui, art, egotism, career, cowardice, inattention. And how, after enough interruptions, it settles into something akin to habit.

After introducing all the main characters, O'Reilly brings everyone together for Madelyn's funeral in act two of Madelyn Dangles the Noose. It's a hilarious, disarmingly poignant melee: the siblings sing Madelyn's favorite song (about an absentminded mother washing her new baby down the drain), and the ghost of the deceased gleefully bellows vitriol into the ear of the long-suffering reverend. Structurally the two acts complement each other perfectly, but the third--a wake with some 20 characters crammed onstage for an hour--seems largely unnecessary, reiterating the family dynamics without venturing into much new dramatic territory.

The spare, efficient The McGuffins Run the 440 is nearly perfect, however. Over two and a half hours, in mostly two-person scenes, O'Reilly weaves an intricate portrait of a family coming apart at the seams. Michael's grief has progressed into a psychotic break. Joan has turned into a semilesbian performance artist. The clan's long-lost father, former Olympic runner Frank the Flame, has returned to whip the kids into shape. O'Reilly uses the characters' eccentric struggles to reveal the deep need to be known and understood: Michael, for instance, won't drown himself in the lake unless someone agrees to stand on the beach and watch the "big scene" from his life. The language is impeccable, and almost everything rings profoundly true. I can't recall a more satisfying two and a half hours I've had in the theater, even though the actors were routinely wandering out of the light and losing their places in the script.

The final play, Hitting the Bricks, veers toward absurdism. Moth becomes mayor of Chicago, her trademark a baseball glove she wears constantly. Turnow makes a living slapping people in public. Mickey Mouse, who may or may not be Michael's son, is bent on world domination. I spent three hours wondering which way was up. But after all those hours on my feet in a dark room surrounded by exhausted actors, with only a greasy ham-and-cheese deluxe to sustain me, The Little Engine That Could might have seemed hopelessly enigmatic.

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