Since 2011 Smyra Yawn has worked as a stage manager, production manager, business manager and teacher in Chicago. She enjoys also coffee and gardening.
(L-R): Sydney Charles & Julian Parker, photo by Joel Maisonet.
Review: PROWESS at Jackalope Theatre
By Smyra Yawn
In a way, Jackalope Theatre’s PROWESS follows the formula of many a comic book tale. The story tracks four young Chicagoans (well, one dude from Schaumburg) over the course of one painfully hot Summer. Zora has sought out Mark for the purpose of some self-defense training. They meet in the office build of the ineffectual alderman for whom Zora works. But Zora wants to do more than defend herself—a lot more, for reasons she is hesitant to reveal (but inevitably does). When her co-worker, Andy of Schaumburg, stumbles in on them training, he wants in—for reasons he is hesitant to reveal (but inevitably does). Mix in the wild card outsider, Jax, a graffiti artist/wordsmith/sass-master and voilà—we’ve got our team of crime-fighting would-be heroes. If that seems cliché, it’s only because I’m skipping over Holter’s deftly crafted dialogue that miraculously manages to make the vigilante superhero premise believable—maybe even relatable. The story never feels like it’s taking place in a fictional universe. I totally believe that these likeable characters want to fight Chicago’s gang violence Batman style: no superpowers, no guns (and no rich, dead parents). But like all vigilante heroes, there’s something personal about their crusade and their struggle has as much to do with keeping the city safe as filling something empty inside each of them.
Holter’s script is densely packed. Marti Lyons’ direction keeps it clipping along, and the cast more than rises to the occasion. Sydney Charles pulls zero punches as the smart and fierce Zora. She brings a strength to the character without defaulting to a cookie cutter version of the badass woman. Julian Parker is positively magnetic as Mark, never missing a beat in the fast-paced and physically demanding scenes. Donovan Diaz as Jax tosses out all our preconceived notions of what the most dangerous person in the room looks like. Jax’s poetic, sarcastic and downright bitchy dialogue is probably closest to what you’d find in an over the top comic book anti-hero but I bought it hook, line and sinker because he’s just so damn enjoyable. Did I mention that the entire cast is almost always moving? Like, a lot—running and jumping and beating the daylights out of each other until they’re dripping with sweat. It’s just not something you see in most straight plays and it’s a blast to watch.
If this weren’t a play with a great cast and a super interesting conceit, I would tell you to see it for the design. Courtney O’Neill’s set is a masterpiece of function. She turned a small, square room into a series of diverse locations with no set changes. This is accomplished not by asking us to suspend our disbelief and imagine the surroundings—each location’s set feels fully realized. Michael Stanfill’s projections take this design to the next level. Instantly we are whisked away from the office, the rooftop, the street corner into the pages of a living comic book.
Holter’s script and this production never let the story stray into schmaltzy territory. Just when the trio is feeling their most euphoric and proud of themselves, the ringing of gunshots nearby smacks them down—literally, they drop to the ground—because this is Chicago and the complex history of racism and poverty plaguing the city can’t be fixed by a handful of eager citizens. The play offers no real solutions because it’s not, primarily (and thankfully), a play about ideas. It’s a play about people responding to a world of real problems. Despite the sometimes heavy material, the show is just plain fun. In a time when most storefronts have little faith in their audience to make it through 90 minutes without looking at their phone, PROWESS flies through its 2+ hour run time. This is the play we’re talking about when we say we want to bring in new, young audiences. Even if you don’t like comic books—if you think you don’t like theater—you should check out this show.