It's not as if these three companies couldn't find places to perform. One of them, Theatre Zarko, even has a little studio of its own, suitable for putting on shows.
But such is the mystique—the pull, power, prestige, and resources—of Steppenwolf Theatre that Zarko, Livewire Chicago, and the Inconvenience all clambered on board to participate in the latest Garage Rep, an annual showcase that puts them in Steppenwolf's Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, just down the block from the mother ship, for a solid nine weeks.
And I'm so very glad they did. Some choice ensembles have come through Garage Rep since its inaugural run in 2010. But Livewire's Oohrah!, Zarko's He Who, and the Inconvenience's Hit the Wall compare favorably with anything that's gone before. In fact, Hit the Wall constitutes a full-out triumph. These shows and the troupes behind them deserve a Steppenwolf-size audience.
Of the bunch, Livewire is dealing with the most conventional material. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter has been through the MFA system and clearly absorbed its lore, so her Oohrah!, unsurprisingly, is a smart, well-structured, just-goofy-enough, small-cast dramedy dealing with a current social issue at the domestic level. Ron is a U.S. army captain who's just returned from his fourth tour of duty in Iraq to find his wife stressed, his tween daughter training for combat, his Vietnam vet father-in-law sliding into dementia, and his live-in sister-in-law having second thoughts about marrying her sweet, stupid slacker boyfriend. What am I going to say next? You're right: Into this mix walks a stranger with a problem.
If Brunstetter departs from pattern, it's in never permitting that stranger to take control of the narrative. She might've ended up with a more interesting play if she had. What she's got instead is a neatly symmetrical, rather pointless tale that the Livewire cast can nevertheless act the hell out of. Oohrah! is just the sort of thing people used to criticize Steppenwolf for staging back when ensemble members were making more of the decisions and seemingly picking scripts on the basis of one or two really cool roles. Calliope Porter and Joel Ewing manage a bittersweet nuance as the sister-in-law and her fiance. Madeline Long is age-appropriate as the tween daughter, a tomboy trying to fight back boobs. And Josh Odor's Ron registers as a quiet yet vivid paradox: a rock of a man who's also a terrible mess.
Theatre Zarko's He Who couldn't be more different. Written and directed by habitually astonishing puppet artist Michael Montenegro, it comes across as a wry Beckettian ritual . . . with a Brechtian folk aesthetic.
In short, it's a dark, rough, ugly, beautiful, nasty, comic, mysterious, handmade wonder.
And it all revolves around a baby, represented by an enormous, stylized head made of rags and wire. With a big left eye that can move and blink, a mouth that can draw itself into a frown, and a single arm that can gesture and grab hold, the uncanny creature tyrannizes not just one but three mothers who tend to his needs. He's hungry. He's thirsty. He's got to pee (and does so, hilariously). He wheedles and rages and won't be left alone. He does his unconscious best to subvert his caretakers' every desire.
Montenegro connects the baby to an old man with a grim photograph for a face, perhaps to make a point about how men behave at any age. But that connection comes off as a self-conscious stretch. The compelling heart of the piece is the fraught relationship between the hungry head and those poor women. Seldom if ever has anyone put the love/hate passions of parenthood into a franker, more succinct set of images.
Still, the exploited women of He Who have got nothing on the gay men, lesbians, and crossdressers of the Inconvenience's Hit the Wall. Ike Holter's fiery, funny play recounts the Stonewall riots of 1969, when customers at a Greenwich Village gay bar—the Stonewall Inn—fought back against a police raid, sparking a revolt that became symbolic of the struggle for LGBT rights. And Eric Hoff's cast bring it stunningly to life.
Though he fictionalizes events leading up to the riots, Holter neither trivializes nor, as far as I can tell, distorts them. In a sort of cross between Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead and Rent, he offers up a coterie of street swishes, drifters, outcasts, and dissemblers whose terrible beauty is about to be born.
Strange love stories are everywhere, and so is rage. Manny Buckley's magnificent transvestite, Carson, hooks up with Steve Lenz's sexy hippie, Cliff; Rania Manganaro's anguished dyke, Peg, discovers Shannon Matesky's motormouthed would-be organizer, Roberta. They all get caught up in a maelstrom of exquisitely sustained violence (choreographed by Ryan Borque) that recalls, oddly enough, the early, visceral days of Steppenwolf itself.