Kelsey is a Chicago based producer, actor, writer, critic, and mixologist. An alum of Black Box Acting’s ACADEMY Program, Kelsey curates “The Newness,” a monthly salon of new work. They also work closely with Trans Voices Cabaret Chicago as well as Chicago Theatre Access Auditions. Follow them on Insta! @playsandpours, @kelseylooks
Pictured: (l-r) Malic White, and Molly Brennan. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
PICNIC at American Theatre Company is an homage to queer art-making and a reclamation of William Inge’s 1940s classic. Will Davis (who proudly shares the playwright’s name) directs a production that breathes 2017 life into Inge’s text. Davis meditates on desire and failure, resurrecting Inge as the playwright’s personal struggles are reincarnated in his fragile characters. “This is a production that’s meant to be felt,” remarked Davis during pre-show. He stands at the foot of a vast, slightly sloping stage. The carpet is a gaudy floral pattern that spans the entirety of the floating floor. The parameters are messily lined with baskets and white sheets. Upstage, a floating door and porch are illuminated. We can see everything. We can see the bones of the space. This lives with us as they transform into the bones of Inge’s world.
Throughout this production, Davis experiments with the idea of ritual; moments of synchronized activity ground the work. The ritual of folding laundry, of frosting a cake, of taking the scenic route, of placing tiny paper houses. These rituals root the show, but also bring to question the ritual of gender expression, a driving facet of Davis’ iteration. Hal, the fresh-faced, bad boy, man’s man newcomer is played smoothly by Molly Brennan. She enraptures the townspeople and the audience with her wildness and charm. This casting decision lifts the text up in an almost ironic way; whenever Brennan refers to herself as a “man” or discusses gender, we are reminded of the play’s original casting. Otherwise, we sink into Brennan’s storytelling to a point where the gender play no longer matters. Hal’s story is her story is his story is our story. It is an exploration of human fragility and shared experience.
Malic White, a gender non-conforming individual, plays Madge, the “pretty girl” of the family. As White sports bright teal hair and shaved sides, a similar sensation arises in us when Madge discusses ideals of beauty and the expectations impressed on girls their age. The casting of ensemble member Michael Turrentine also played a role in the show’s homage. As Rosemary — the female school teacher — Turrentine’s interpretation is largely performative, but still rooted in honesty. It recalls ideas of the performance and rituals involved with gender expression.
Trans* actress Alexia Jasmene plays Millie, Madge’s awkward younger sister. While the role clearly does not require a trans individual to play the role, the casting of such is the normalization essential for theater in 2017. When breathing new life into classics or casting any show ever, Trans people are the gender with which they identify and theater should be the art spearheading this advocacy. Casting in ways that challenge our conventional perceptions of humanity is necessary. Davis misses no opportunity to do this, layering a contemporary context to and owning the 1940s classic dramatic text. Herein lies the urgency of his work.
This is a production that prompts critical thought. It is rich in ideological interplay as well as fascinating design choices. Mrs. Potts and the neighborhood ladies, captivatingly played by Laura McKenzie, live off stage left at the piano. McKenzie serves as the live soundtrack of this show. While seemingly disconnected, she is the auteur of tone, and energetically switches between characters at a microphone. This device brings us out of Inge’s reality and reminds us that we are at the theater. She participates in ritual as she silently enters the space, sits at the piano and begins to play.
Patricia Kane, Jose Nateras, and Robert Cornelius round out the diverse ensemble. The love invested in the study of their characters was apparent, and their journeys break our hearts and give us hope, further connecting us to the humanity of all/anybody, even across eras of writing and values. The whole cast works from a place like this, causing the audience to pay attention to their reality.
Each aspect of ATC’s PICNIC is handled with intention and meaning. We feel the play’s reclamation. With love, empathy, and ritual, Inge’s text is brought to life in 2017.
PICNIC runs through April 23rd. For more information visit atcweb.org.