By Kerry Reid, Special to the Tribune
3:03 PM EDT, August 22, 2013
"If you think this is going to be a history lesson, you've come to the wrong place," says a character at the top of Alex Paul Young's "Pink Milk," a highly imaginative and wrenching vision of the life (and ultimate suicide) of Alan Turing. The pioneering British mathematician and computer scientist famously broke the Nazis' Enigma code in World War II but was broken down by the same barbaric laws against "gross indecency" that destroyed Oscar Wilde.
Given a choice between jail and chemical castration, Turing initially chose the latter. But the man who saw "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" more than a hundred times killed himself by eating a cyanide-infused apple two weeks before his 42nd birthday in 1954. He was finally "pardoned" by the British government this summer for breaking the laws against homosexuality.
Young's piece, directed and choreographed by Brandon Powers, started out as a campus production at Northwestern University and made its professional debut in last year's Chicago Fringe Festival. It has been expanded to a 95-minute prismatic physical theater piece for the small Oracle space, presented in association with White Elephant. And as promised, it's less concerned with the finer details of Turing's actual biography and his groundbreaking work with artificial intelligence than Hugh Whitemore's 1986 play, "Breaking the Code."
But while it glosses over the timeline (Turing's invaluable contributions during the war get particularly short shrift), "Pink Milk" provides a jolting dose of adrenaline to the heart and brain. Aided by Josh Brechner's original electronic score, Emma Pardini's spare but effective scenic design (with apples caged on the wall providing eerie foreshadowing), Cassie Bowers' allusive period costumes in shades of gray and Jessica M. Carson's stark-to-garish lighting plot, the interior ruminations and exterior conflicts of Turing's world come to symbolic life, as if we ourselves are in one of his early computers running through a variety of emotional algorithms.
Only here, the stored memory focuses heavily on Christopher Morcom, a budding piano prodigy and early romantic interest whose death from bovine tuberculosis, contracted through ingesting infected cow's milk (thus the title of the piece), affects Turing (an arrestingly vulnerable Aaron Stephenson) for the rest of his own short life.
Cole Doman's Christopher keeps appearing in Turing's mind after death, most often to staunch the nosebleeds that Turing suffers at moments of emotional duress. The other five members of the young ensemble nimbly play everything, from Turing's conflicted parents (Caitlin Collins and Charlie Kolarich) to a series of apple-fed robots (Darren Barrere) to "the inanimate objects" (Carrie Drapac), which include the aforementioned TB-infected milk and a daisy symbolizing a lost Eden. Jessica Dean Turner's imposing "authority figures" include Christopher's stern piano teacher, a steel-spined military official and an alluring Snow White.
Though Young's piece gets a bit precious in its genius-as-man-child worldview, the production succeeds handily at creating a visceral and smart fabulist take on one of the most important figures in 20th-century history.
Through Sept. 7, Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway; free, reservations suggested at 252-220-0269 or publicaccesstheatre.org
"Bo Thomas and the Case of the Sky Pirates"
Babes With Blades offers an end-of-summer goof-fest in Eric Simon's "Bo Thomas and the Case of the Sky Pirates," which blends a Raymond Chandler scenario with screwball zingers, such as "She's one mean Cracker Jack with a pointy surprise inside."
The basic premise is that the title character (Megan Schemmel), a "girl Friday" at the Sam Lowell Detective Agency, is the real guts of the operation — Sam (Mark Lancaster) being a cerebral but easily spooked kind of guy. A mysterious millionaire client, Lydia Day (Jennifer L. Mickelson), sucks them into a convoluted scheme involving an orphanage fire; outlaw zeppelins; a mousy secretary, Sally, (Kelly Yacono) with her own secrets; and a fearsome dame named Minerva (the delicious Maureen Yasko) who boasts a Bettie Page hairdo and a deadly way with a dagger.
The fights are, as one expects with the Babes, top-notch stuff (JKChoreograpy — the team of Jay Burckhardt and Kim Fukawa — provided the violence design), and Schemmel's Bo is a saucy delight as a pastiche female Philip Marlowe. The major drawback in Leigh Barrett’s staging is that the cinematic structure of Simon's comedy requires scenery shifts that tend to sap energy just as the narrative should be gaining momentum. But though it runs out of gas by the end, this noir-homage-with-a-feminist-twist-of-the-knife offers snappy lighthearted charm to burn.
Through Sept. 21, Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.; $20 at 773-904-0391 or babeswithblades.org.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC