Each year since 2010, Steppenwolf Theatre Company has given three local troupes the chance to spend about two months in residence at its Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, performing a production apiece on a repertory schedule. The program is called Garage Rep, and it's a great thing because it gives the participants access not only to Steppenwolf-level facilities but also to Steppenwolf-level marketing power and prestige. (The concept is catching on, evidently: Victory Gardens Theater this week announced a Resident Theater Series that sounds a lot like a variation on the Garage Rep theme.)
Garage Rep's admissions criteria seem to be getting narrower as time goes on. The selections for the first two installments came across as a jolly hodgepodge. In 2010, we got a dark look at an urban cannibal and his willing dinner, running in rotation with a promenade-style show about creepy twins and a sweet comedy centered on suburban punks. The following year saw a fantasy involving robots and Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, offered alongside the arch tale of a 19th-century murderer and a highly stylized effort set in the "waiting room for the afterlife."
Then, in 2012, the roster featured a drama on a significant social topic; a quirky, stagecrafty bit of storytelling; and a play with music. This time around? Ditto, more or less. Maybe it's just a coincidence.
One thing last year's Rep had that this one lacks is a breakout hit. None of the current entries possess the unambiguous heft, glow, and sense of discovery generated in 2012 by the Inconvenience's rock-scored gay history play, Hit the Wall. Still, none of them struck me as a waste of time, either.
Far from it, in fact. Bailiwick Chicago, for one, has an excellent if somewhat ungainly showcase in See What I Wanna See, by Michael John LaChiusa. Best known for his eccentric musicals—particularly a 2000 adaptation of Joseph Moncure March's long Jazz Age poem The Wild Party—LaChiusa here strings together three short stories by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
The narrative you're likely to recognize—thanks to Akira Kurosawa, who based one of his signature movies, Rashomon, on it—is "In a Grove." In Akutagawa's original telling, a samurai and his wife encounter a brigand; the samurai ends up dead and the wife, possibly, raped. But exactly how and why are open questions, since everyone involved has a different account—the dead man included. LaChiusa updates the action to 1951 New York, setting it not in a grove but in Central Park.
The other two parts of See What I Wanna See also examine perception and the constantly moving line between the truth and a lie. Director Lili-Anne Brown has some intriguing situations and strong music to work with, yet never finds the theatrical language she needs to pull all the elements together. The evening pretty much falls to pieces. That this matters as little as it does is a function of some sharp performances, particularly Danni Smith's as the wife in the "In the Grove" update and as a hilariously plainspoken old lady in one of the other passages.
Christina Anderson's Blacktop Sky—which had its world premiere just a couple months ago, at Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City—fills the slot for a drama on a significant social topic, that topic being the trauma and alienation attendant on being poor and black in the inner city. Anderson doesn't have anything too surprising to say about that. What she does have is an interestingly skewed love triangle. Restless 18-year-old Ida is moving toward marriage with her adoring, super-responsible boyfriend, Wynn, when she takes an interest in Klass, the fucked-up, artistic, homeless young man living on a bench outside her apartment building.
The idea of a seductive street person—hell, the idea of a street person who's human, as opposed to scary or (per sentimental movie lore) mystical—is novel enough to be worth investigating onstage, and Anderson takes a respectable stab at it. In the end, however, she's too concerned with lining up her symbols and hitting her plot points to allow the conceit to get too far out of hand. Even the simple, sensual fact that Klass must smell awful, given that he wears a parka during the summer, gets lost in pursuit of a nicely structured narrative.
As with See What I Wanna See, good acting comes to the rescue. This Theatre Seven of Chicago production has Julian Parker to give us a taste of what Klass might be.
Buzz22's staging of She Kills Monsters is the great crowd-pleaser of the bunch. And justly so. Described on his website as "playwright, screenwriter, geek," Qui Nguyen vividly conjures the underground nerd world of Athens, Ohio, in 1995, when the Internet was operating at a mind-boggling 56 kilobytes per second.
Having lost her 15-year-old younger sister, Tilly, in a car accident, straight-arrow Agnes resolves to learn about the kid posthumously. Her search for clues leads to a scenario that Tilly wrote for her Dungeons & Dragons persona, Tillius the Palladin, and Agnes enlists the aid of superschlub Chuck in acting it out.
The comedy subsides into the swamp of cliche as Agnes's attempt to know Tilly naturally culminates in self-knowledge (as the Beatles said, inaccurately, "Fun is the one thing that money can't buy")—but not before director Scott Weinstein, costume designer Rachel Goldberg, and an endearing ensemble have supplied a supremely amiable good time. If you can't see the entire 2013 Garage Rep lineup, this is the one not to miss.