"Zastrozzi, The Master of Discipline"
The Division announces its local arrival with a swash, a buckle, and a splash of gothic nihilism with "Zastrozzi, the Master of Discipline," George F. Walker's odd-duck take on an early novel by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in which the title character seeks vengeance on the man who allegedly killed his mother.
Jodi Kingsley's staging unfolds on a series of ramps, walkways, and platforms (designed by Joanna Iwanicka) suggestive of the intricate and conflicted morality of Jason Kingsley's Zastrozzi, who proclaims himself "the master criminal of all Europe," adding "It's not a boast. It's an observation." But like the set, the story contains openings and pitfalls that neither Walker's script nor Kingsley's staging can bridge successfully.
Kingsley's mastermind has chased the addled Verezzi (Nick Bonges), a naifish dilettante who dabbles in verse and painting, for three years. But even with the wise assistance of priest-turned tutor Victor (Jeff Brown), it's hard to see how Bonges' idiot could have avoided accidentally killing himself by falling on his own palette knife, let alone how he's escaped the bloody clutches of Zastrozzi for so long. Nor are the roles of Zastrozzi's feral henchman, Bernardo (Martin Monahan) and his occasional lover/female foil, Matilda (Danni Smith) entirely clear. Is Zastrozzi real, or (as Verezzi insists) a figment of the imagination? His seduction-through-language of the sassy virgin Julia, where he never actually touches the girl, suggests the latter.
But there's enigmatic, and then there's undercooked. Walker sets up moral conundrums that aren't satisfactorily addressed, making the bloody end of the 1977 play feel less like an exercise in goth-opera justice than a precursor to what's now dubbed "torture porn" (think the "Saw" franchise). However, thanks in no small part to Kingsley's crystalline take on the title character, the Division production contains many arresting moments.
With his spiky white hair and basso faux-profundo line readings, Kingsley recalls John Larroquette, underscoring the self-mocking quality of Walker's lines. Smith's Matilda oozes voluptuous foxy sensuality, and though Anne Leone's Julia is perhaps a mite too contemporary in her carriage, her counterintuitive take on the ingenue's role also lends her a sassy charm that makes us wish she were the true opponent in Zastrozzi's underworld of dark thoughts and blacker deeds.
Through Feb. 25 at Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $20 at 773-296-6024 or divisiontheaterchicago.com
"Jack's Precious Moment"
Kitsch meets Christianity in Samuel D. Hunter's black comedy, just as it does at the Precious Moments Theme Park in Carthage, Mo. Based on the Sistine Chapel, Samuel Butcher's church uses the popular "Precious Moments" figurines to commemorate actual dead children in a mural of grief.
It's also where the family of Jack, a contractor beheaded on video in Iraq, has come to seek solace. His widow, Karen (Havalah Grace) wants to talk Butcher into creating a figurine for Jack, capturing his last gruesome moments. Jack's twin brother, Bib (Ed Porter) wants somebody to acknowledge just how awful Jack was in life -- and also sees similarities between his own Christianity and the Islamic extremists who killed his brother. And his father, Jim (Kevin Mullaney) wants to understand why a ten-foot-tall Precious Moments apparition keeps showing up.
In Hunter's "A Bright New Boise," presented late last year by LiveWire Chicago, religious fundamentalism and tragedy got a respectful and nuanced treatment. But in Azar Kazemi's staging of "Jack's Precious Moment" for Will Act for Food, one can almost hear the playwright sniggering at the ridiculousness of his own concept, which undercuts the real pain the characters are in. Tossing in drug addiction and closeted homosexuality doesn't add depth so much as faux-edginess -- like cut-rate Wes Anderson.
Thankfully, Kazemi's cast, especially Porter's Bib, find ways to cut through the cloying smugness of Hunter's overstuffed story and deliver some precious moments of truth.
Through Feb. 25 at Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park Road; $10-$20 at 773-865-7731 or willactforfood.com