Pictured: Lauren Paris. Photo by Zeke Dolezalek.
Oxygen is inhaled, the diaphragm contracts, a perfect sound is pushed out. Vibrations surge and swim around in the same air, now transformed. It’s mesmerizing being just feet away from a highly trained actor and singer, and Refuge Theatre Project knows it. Their latest offering in intimate, site-specific musicals is THE SPITFIRE GRILL, performed at the Windy City Café in West Town and produced by Refuge Theatre Project.
The Spitfire Grill is the heart of Gilead, a small town in rural Wisconsin. Newly released from prison, troubled Percy’s arrival is just the medicine the town needs to heal and find love again. You can probably guess what happens; it’s an obvious plot. What is unexpected, however, are some of the performances, especially those of Lauren Paris as Percy and Nicole Michelle Haskins as town busybody Effy. These aren’t easy songs, and while some of the cast don’t quite make it, Paris’ command of breath control and vocal technique make her soar as music director John Schneidman effortlessly accompanies on multiple instruments. Along with Haskin’s impeccable comic timing and command of dialogue, and Paris’ earthy charisma blending effortlessly between speech and song, there are many moving and impressive moments.
Especially given the difficulty that producing site-specific work presents, I always wonder if the location is offering a show something a theater could not. In this case, I’m not sure that it did – at least not fully. It isn’t that the closeness isn’t impacting or that the diner isn’t a diner – they both clearly are. Rather, it’s that the details of intimacy that this context offers aren’t fully exploited – the smaller gestures and habits, the places we touch on a piece of furniture that show our relationship to it, whether we fold a napkin into origami animal when we’re given it or put it to the side out of reach. While these missing details sometimes mean we miss out on complete grounding and intimacy with the story and characters, Collin Helou’s clever, minimal lighting design is always there to draw us back in, gently isolating and adding life to the imaginary worlds inferred by the script.
With the talent and skill already present on and off-stage, I can only imagine that THE SPITFIRE GRILL will grow into greater specificity as the cast and crew continue to negotiate and incorporate the site-specific space and context as part of the production.
THE SPITFIRE GRILL runs through May 5th. For more information visit refugetheatre.com.