Review | HELLCAB at The Agency Theater Collective

Review | HELLCAB at The Agency Theater Collective

Pictured (left to right): Adam Mengesha, Jack Schultz, Audrey Gladson and Regina Linn. Photo by Katie Reynolds.

By Aaron Lockman

Normally, good reviews are the easiest to write. But this one? This one is agonizing.

Because the loveliest and craziest thing about HELLCAB is that it shouldn’t work. It is the story of one woman, an unnamed cab driver, driving around Chicago over the course of one freezing day just before Christmas of 1992, and of her interactions with passengers. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no plot to speak of, most vignettes don’t connect to one another, and we only get to follow the journey of one character.

But it works. This show took me on a journey as all-encompassing as the Cab Driver’s, a journey which in turn horrified and delighted me, and it took me a crazily long time to put my finger on why.

I knew only two things going into this show: that HELLCAB is something of a Chicago staple, with many small theaters putting their own spin on it over the years, and that the main character was originally written as a man. The first point speaks to a peculiar feeling of city-wide patriotism in the script that is very appealing; nothing beats the inexplicable childlike thrill of hearing a street you live on, a CTA stop you’ve cried at, or a bar you’ve been to name-dropped onstage. In addition, the company’s placement of this show in its season—right around Christmas, just as the weather gets cold enough to match the play’s setting—is pure commercial genius.

The second point makes me think about how switching up gender in casting changes (or doesn’t change) a show. The Cab Driver is a deliberate self-insert character (playwright Will Kern drew on his own experience as a cabbie) but is also a passive observer. Each passenger climbs inside the cab and imposes their own story on the Cab Driver for a limited time—and despite being the literal driver, in many ways the Cab Driver is just along for the ride. And in this way, she isn’t just the playwright’s self-insert, but the audience’s as well.

So it makes sense that switching up the gender of the Cab Driver doesn’t make too much of a difference to the show—and the few small differences that crop up strengthen the narrative immensely.

First off, Regina Linn’s performance as the Cab Driver is utterly compelling for reasons that are, again, hard to describe. Much of their job involves listening and responding to the characters in the back seat of the cab, often without looking at them, in a deliberately understated and relatable way. Linn’s facial expressions and awkward physicality are precise without seeming practiced. As the only character to appear more than once, the onus is on them to give the show a shape, to take us through the emotional beats, and they succeed tremendously.

But excellent performance aside, the way they present onstage is equally fascinating to analyze. Chicago is a city where it is nearly impossible to travel around without an intense awareness of your own place on the political spectrum—and the Cab Driver picks up people of all races, genders, and economic brackets. Seeing her negative reactions to racism from other white people is fascinating. Seeing her varying reactions to people of color—and especially her nervousness at driving around the South Side at night—is often cringe-worthy by contrast. The understandable impulse to look out for your own safety in an admittedly dangerous city … well, it can easily slip into making racist judgments of people’s appearance.

Similarly, seeing the Cab Driver’s reaction to condescension from men, empathy from women, overt sexism from anyone, or even flirtatious advances from passengers is just as interesting. Many passengers perceive the Cab Driver as female and will change their behavior accordingly, but others barely seem to perceive gender at all—and this fluctuation in perception is captivating to watch, partly because it is untrod ground in the theater, and partly because it is choreographed so precisely.

These observations and questions are given a chance to shine by stellar supporting actors. I can’t possibly go through the surprisingly large cast, but there isn’t a weak link in the chain. Director Cordie Nelson has clearly worked with each actor to keep the characters grounded. Comedic characters are played subtly, quirky and off-putting rather than zany or over-the-top. And the more dramatic moments are played with minimal yelling and enormous restraint.  In this way, the laughs are funnier, the gasps are more gut-wrenching, and the pace of the show never drags, even in its quietest moments.

The technical elements are strong here and seamlessly supplement the story. Elyse Balogh has created a simple set – just a beat-up car, a few street lamps, and a sprawling, painted street map of Chicago on that stretches across the black-painted floor and walls, and effectively evokes the sprawling distances of our city. Since the show’s central automobile can’t actually move, creating the illusion of movement is mostly on the lights and sound. Lighting designer Ellie Humphrys creates a low, orange, atmospheric, quintessentially Chicago ambiance throughout, with traffic lights and streetlamps casting their glow on the car at key moments. And sound designer Ryan Wiechman does masterful work, with fully convincing sounds of not only the cab but other cars as well. These two elements work well in tandem, and the actors play off them very precisely – leaning left, right, forward, and back at just the right moments.

The only weak point is a bizarre reoccurrence in the script where, despite the fact that the dialogue is mostly grounded in realism, the Cab Driver has monologues to herself where she analyzes what just happened. These were occasional enough to seem out of place – and they’re largely unnecessary since the character shines most in moments of quiet.

But ultimately, what makes HELLCAB work is something more than the sum of what I can describe here. I don’t know what it is; I would be hard pressed to tell you the themes of this show. I only know that last night, I got glimpses up and down the length of this city, glimpses that were just. . . just life, you know? Life, in all its beauty and horror, its screaming and terrifying complexity, and its warm and reassuring simplicity.

It moved me a great deal, and I still have no idea why. Maybe you’ll have more clarity when you see it. Let me know.

HELLCAB runs through December 30. For more information visit http://wearetheagency.org.

About author

Aaron Lockman

Aaron Lockman is an actor and playwright. Credits include Metropolis Theatre, Citadel Theatre, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, the side project, Surging Films and Theatrics, and The Living Room. His plays have been seen at The Theater at Monmouth, Mary's Attic, Prop Theatre, and Columbia College. Aaron also writes reviews with Rescripted.org. You can hear his voice on the podcast The Audio Diary of Aaron Lockman, or on the audiobooks Surviving Hitler, Locke and Key, and The X-Files: Cold Cases. You might also have seen him narrating sky shows at the Adler Planetarium. Aaron enjoys walking dogs, playing with Legos, talking excitedly about astronomy, and making annoying puns. http://aaronlockman.com

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