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THEATRICAL ESSAYS, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Created in concert with a gifted nine-member ensemble, Tina Landau's playful new 90-minute piece explores subjects as diverse as bananas, film noir, and love in the age of irony. From the opening section, on the joys and tribulations of getting lost in Venice, to an impassioned and stunning tribute to red dresses, this evening focuses on the essay as a journey remapping the philosophical landscape--and occasionally encountering swampland. The only serious misfire is the nearly wordless noir segment, which is far too faithful to the genre's poses.

This is by far the best physical staging I've seen in Steppenwolf's Garage space; prior to the show, Landau fills every corner with a tableau of essayists living and dead, among them Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, James Baldwin, and the Daddy of All Essayists, Montaigne. The cast is excellent and energetic, though Guy Adkins, Molly Brennan, and Halena Starr Kays stand out. The latter's defiant manifesto against the distancing effect of irony ends with her being mummified in black lace and carried screaming offstage--a beautifully apt reminder that faux gentility often silences passion and dissent. Landau and company have a great early draft here worthy of further shaping and editing.

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