Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Photo by Liz Lauren
by Erin Shea Brady
Act(s) of God is a strange beast. A rare three-act play (with two intermissions) that seems to fly by, with quick-witted direction from Heidi Stillman. Kareem Bandealy’s piece is a roller coaster — both tonally and emotionally — that leaves much heavy lifting to an impeccable ensemble of actors with tremendous talent and range. What begins as a traditional family drama changes shape with a call to host a divine and unexpected dinner guest, who throws Lookingglass’ well-assembled cast into everything from musical lamentation to shade and snark to an all-out brawl.
It is April 13th, 2029. Bandealy has placed us ten years into the future, and the world-building is precarious at best. In the beginning, this seems intentional. What little information we are given doesn’t line up — a futuristic phone that can trim fingernails with a laser in the same room as an old-school radio predicting doom and destruction, strange religious rituals that seem to be common knowledge, a socially challenged fiancée so apparently inept that she can’t boil water — all unsettling and strange, with little explanation as to why. When a mysterious envelope signifies divine arrival, the stakes are raised, both in the play’s content and form. All of this mystery seems to foreshadow something big, some otherworldly payoff that will ultimately pull Bandealy’s threads through, but no such payoff exists. While entertaining and provocative along the way, Bandealy takes detour after detour, and eventually ends up lost, leaning into, and then right back out of, big conversations about faith, family, feminism, sexuality, and betrayal.
As the matriarch of this strange brood, Shannon Cochran is as fierce as she is funny. Kristina Valada-Viars doesn’t miss a beat as the eldest child, who oscillates between staunch contrarian and rightful self-advocate, fighting for and claiming her space in a family that refuses to lend it. As tension builds, Cochran and Valada-Viars face-off in a scene reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’s torturous, fury-filled play-acting, following in a rich and deeply-felt theatrical legacy of women who are too smart for their circumstances. Emjoy Gavino outshines her material as the middle son’s fiancee. Rom Barkhorder, as the reigning patriarch, deftly handles the play’s elusive comedic tone.
For Cochran and Valada-Viars’ performances alone, Act(s) of God is well-worth seeing. It will leave audiences with no shortage of conversation, though the overall experience leaves much to be desired. Bandealy stands on sacred ground in the subjects he chooses to broach. The choice of style over content dismisses the audience’s investment in the very real moral and emotional conflicts that these characters are facing. When given the choice between a messy play trying to do something different, and a group of artists playing it safe, I’m always going to choose the messier play. There is a difference, however, between a play that catches us off-guard and throws us off course, with an ultimate payoff, and one that resets in tone and in message so relentlessly that we throw up our hands and detach.
One person’s claim of absurdism is another’s claim of indulgence and pretension, so I’m sure we can expect a wide variety of reactions to what is, at least, a unique and always-entertaining piece of theater. The experience is unlikely to be repeated.