Most non-Equity companies in Chicago would be content to open one space in a year, but intrepid Jackalope Theatre Company has now established a beachhead in Edgewater with two spaces essentially right around the corner from each other and within throwing distance of the Thorndale "L" stop. And as if that isn't enough of a logistical challenge, they've opened their newest 60-seat flexible-use venue in the Broadway Armory with a show that is essentially a play-within-a-film. Or vice versa.
In Cory Hinkle's "The Killing of Michael X," now in its world premiere under Kaiser Ahmed's direction, cinematic references — particularly to French New Wave classics such as Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" and outlaw road-trip narratives like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Badlands" — serve as film buff Celia Wallace's lingua franca, whether in the live-action portions or in the film segments that play out in three projection areas.
The teenage girl's older brother has died of a drug overdose, throwing Celia (Joanne Dubach) into a mental state that looks like a kaleidoscopic mishmash of the "denial, anger" Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Or maybe he didn't die — maybe he's just holed up in his room while he sorts himself out. Meantime, Celia is making out with her homeless friend, Randy (Andrew Goetten), in order to get him to go along with her ambitions for cinematic and criminal glory.
Celia plans to take down the "Big Pharma" executive Michael X, whose company manufactures the prescription drug she blames for her brother's plight. And she wants to film the entire thing, even as television and radio crews follow her crime spree.
Meantime, Celia's parents, Bob (Charlie Strater) and Jackie (Kristin Collins) have their own demons. Dad works for an oil company and the guilt he feels about both failing his son and the environment leaves him with visions of an all-encompassing fog, while Jackie nips at a flask. The discovery of a human femur in the backyard brings Reynolds (Jared Fernley), a detective with his own demons, into the family orbit.
What's real and what's unfolding in Celia's head takes a while to sort out. And I'm not convinced that all the smarty-pants cinema-insider asides really add to the emotional payoff that Hinkle's script strives for in the end. (Reynolds describes the femur as "a MacGuffin," and Celia tells amorous Randy "I will not become a pregnant Alex Cox" — a reference to the director of "Sid and Nancy" whose follow-up films weren't nearly as successful.
It all starts to feel a bit unwieldy, particularly when Dubach's Celia hits 11 on the rage-o-meter — the brick walls of the theater create a lot of acoustical bounce that overwhelms the possibility of much-needed nuance at points. Director Ahmed doesn't seem to have figured out the best way to limn the script's tricky chameleonic shifts between the characters' moments of self-consciousness and self-revelation.
Though the production falls just short of its dramatic possibilities, the technical elements seldom fail to impress. (Alex Hand is credited with the videography and film, Peter DiCamillo with the animated sequences, and Neil Pandya with the projection designs, with a highly effective soundscape and original music created by Thomas Dixon.)
The outsize anger and fear of teenage girls seldom take center stage in our culture, which much prefers disaffected youth of the Angry Young Man variety. For that reason alone, I admired many moments of Hinkle's story, and I suspect the performances will grow stronger as the company adjusts to the new venue.
When: Through April 13
Where: Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $20 at jackalopetheatre.org