Residents of the Chicago neighborhood known as North Center may well live passionate lives in those neat single-family homes and three-flats, but the pedestrian-free section of West Berenice Avenue between Lincoln Avenue and the train tracks is not known for its pulsing excitement. A wild night around here means an expedition to Trader Joe's for some "Two-Buck Chuck." One is ill-prepared, then, for the remarkably sexy show that lurks behind the windowless doors of the Signal Ensemble Theatre, where a prosaic warehouse currently contains a beguiling little vista of Dionysiac passion in a barrel of Greek grapes.
Since sexy is a subjective adjective, I should note that playwright Sheila Callaghan's 2010 play, "Lascivious Something," is not some kind of peep show or nude burlesque. On the contrary, it is a heady, atmospheric, meandering yet intellectually stimulating drama from a writer frequently, and quite aptly, described as a post-feminist poet.
It's by no means a cheery bacchanal. On the contrary, an air of intense melancholy, of longings felt but never satisfied, permeates director Ronan Marra's deep-diving production. It is an excessive play, perhaps a little too tipsy and free for its own good. Its gender politics are never fully clear, its sympathies constantly shifting, its point of view oblique and its poetry complex. But there is something in the air here, in both material and its Chicago manifestation, especially when it comes to the no-holds-barred performance of Georgann Charuhas, who plays one of those just-holding-it-together characters who has unwisely gone in search of an old lover with whom she still is desperately entwined.
"Lascivious Something" is set in a vineyard in Greece. The owners are sensualist dilettantes and the wine is no good, but there is much sport in its making. The air gets heavy when Charuhas' Liza, schlepping her way around Europe (or so she claims) just happens to land here at the home of the ex-beau, August (Joe McCauley). August has mostly moved on, to a new Hellenic wife, Daphne (Simone Roos). But with the wine flowing and the sun warm, the rules start to fall away. August's wife starts suggesting that maybe he'd like to make love to his ex. It's partly altruistic, but then Daphne has an illicit passion of her own, a beautiful if primal village girl (Cassidy Shea Stirtz) whom she prefers to refer to as "Boy."
People drink. People do strange, ill-advised things. And a sensual, beautiful, linguistically pleasing Mediterranean air permeates the whole, which is never easy in a chilly off-Loop setting in the midst of a cool Chicago spring. The Bernardo Bertolucci movie "Stealing Beauty" kept coming into my mind. Both that movie and this play have an interesting kind of tension wherein one moment you're convinced you're watching a bunch of self-involved egotists in a pretentious setting and, a few minutes later, you're wondering what happened to your own glass of wine.
That said, there's nothing coy or self-serving about Charuhas' unstinting encapsulation of what can happen to someone obsessed with a lover who has moved on. You feel for the characters' dignity (or lack thereof) so intensely, you're half-inclined to jump from your seat and shove her off to the nearest train station before she makes an even bigger fool of herself. If ever you're considered flying off to visit an ex-lover, just so you can be friends, this would be an excellent play to see. That way madness lies.
When: Through June 8
Where: Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $20 at 773-698-7389 or signalensemble.com