Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
By Bec Willett
If you are part of the Chicago theater community, you’ll know the story clung onto as beacon of hope for almost every young non-equity theater company: the legend of Steppenwolf. Told in magical tones and guilelessly devoured by artists in survival mode, all we have to hear is that Steppenwolf started in a church basement (akin to where we are most likely at the time) and suddenly the stars in our eyes feel warranted rather than hopeless. When some time later one of our friends ‘makes it’ to the Steppenwolf stage, we feel further justified: that we just need to sacrifice more, to work harder, to shake more people’s hands and we too will make it. Produced by The Sound, Beth Hyland’s new play RED BOWL AT THE JEFFS is an indicting commentary of this system we’re in, the fuel that feeds it, and how Steppenwolf and the Jeff awards are arbiters of the value we place on theater and theater artists in this city.
This is Red Bowl Theatre Ensemble’s night: their first Jeff award ceremony. They are determined to win because they deserve it. Even more, they are determined that their win will mean something. It will cure the stress of financial instability. It will mend the seams of relationships that are starting to stretch. It will mean that their work is worth something. In many ways, it’s as though the protagonist of this play is not the director we first meet, Elena (Georgi McCauley) but rather the ensemble she leads: Red Bowl Theatre Ensemble – a proxy for every emerging non-equity ensemble in the Chicago theater community. Fair warning: if you’re in theater, you won’t escape from seeing (and laughing at) the hauntingly precise portrayals of yourself or your friends on stage. Among them, the maternal director, the socially odd guy whose weirdness is just passable enough to be a source of humor, the queer black man, the Bambi-like 20-something, and of course, the good-looking white guy who just got his first bit-part at Steppenwolf. While some of the more serious scenes didn’t quite possess the adequate gravity of connection, this is not the case in the majority of the play. Fully in tune with each other and the text, these actors – supported by Rebecca Willingham’s direction – coax and finesse every moment of pith and pacing from Hyland’s repartee, while still grounding these symbolic characters within reality.
With a single setting and minimal lighting and sound cues, RED BOWL AT THE JEFFS design is simple yet confident, providing a platform to showcase the brilliance of Hyland’s delightfully acerbic text. “Everyone thinks they’re the next Steppenwolf,” glibly comments one of the Red Bowl Ensemble members, yet the truth in the humor of Hyland’s words hit home, summoning us to ask ourselves if we really believe that, and even more, if that’s what we actually want after all.
RED BOWL AT THE JEFFS plays at the Frontier through April 21. More info at thesoundchicago.com.