Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Darilyn Burtley. Photo by Rob Riddle of Ghost Light Foto.
By Bec Willett
With just over fifty thousand deaths annually in the US, the mid-nineties saw the HIV/AIDS epidemic reach an all-time high. It’s in front of this backdrop that Steve Schalchlin’s semi-autobiographical musical THE LAST SESSION takes place.
THE LAST SESSION occurs on one particular night in a recording studio. After living with HIV for some time, singer-songwriter Gideon (Erik Pearson) decides to record an album with his friends as a last love letter to his partner, Jack. When an enthusiastic Baptist Buddy (Ryan Armstrong) who is keen to cross over from church music to pop makes a surprise appearance, the expected conflict and controversy ensues.
Refuge Theatre Project is known for their innovative site-specific staging that recontextualizes musicals, grounding them more closely in reality and creating more intimate, immersive spaces within which to experience them. In this case, the mostly generic aesthetic of the Atlas Recording Studio doesn’t add much in the way of atmosphere, and the proximity created by the space often hinders engagement. In such an intimate space, not dissimilar to film, every acting choice and moment can be seen and thus precision is required. In this production, with the exception of Armstrong, much of the acting lacks the required nuance – serving to make an often clichéd script even more so. Yet while the cast struggles to move beyond performative into the dialogue, the songs are emotionally connected and specific throughout. It is here that the proximity of the space truly enhances the experience, especially highlighting the overwhelming vocal talent and skill of Darilyn Burtley (Tryshia) who makes even the most difficult seem effortless.
While site-specific venues often offer little opportunity for design, especially when it comes to lighting and scenic, this production takes full advantage of the costumes. From Gideon’s white-sneakered Seinfeld look to Burtley’s embroidered velvet top, Amanda Vander Byl’s design serves as a continual reminder of the era and with it the gravity of the HIV crisis at this time.
The story of THE LAST SESSION may have been told before but it remains an important one that – especially with such a tangible connection to the past – bears repeating.
THE LAST SESSION runs through December 2. For more information visit RefugeTheatre.com.