Review “Devil’s Day Off” (Signal Ensemble): The Key is in the Notes

get-attachmentSignal Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of DEVIL’S DAY OFF.

Post show, I read Playwright Jon Steinhagen’s note in the program.  It described his vision.  He indicates his script has no stage directions, no settings, no names of characters.  He invites directors to execute with creativity mixing up genders, races and even language.  He even encourages the 50 mini plays’ order to be shuffled to meet the needs of a small or large ensemble, depending. Steinhagen wants DEVIL’S DAY OFF to be a ‘diverse mosaic of moments‘ ‘because theatre is a unique living moment.‘ 

Under the direction of Ronan Marra, twelve ensemble members morph in and out of 100 different characters in ninety minutes.  The premise is a twelve hour city black-out.  People are dealing with extreme temperatures within different scenarios.  Conversations take place in an elevator, on a stoop, from a doorway, over a table and throughout the city.  Marra uses frequent blackouts to end a scene and begin another.  That choice becomes laborious for fifty 1-3 minute sketches.  The transition is clunky as we hear the next group race to get on their mark before the lights go up.  The most seamless scene to scene are when Marra orchestrates the focus switch without resorting to complete darkness.  This is illustrated best in the engineering of my favorite scene, the final one.  The dozen cast members are present on the stage when the blackout is over.          

The entire show has a Second City vibe.  The brevity of each piece feels like sketch comedy. In an elevator scene, the talented cast interact like strangers with natural, nervousness.  It has that relatable amusement.  Yet, it’s not all supposed to be humorous.  Some of the stories are dramatic, particularly the ones spoken in a different language.  Still, the last line is delivered like a punch line.   Even when the moment is supposed to be more profound, it sounds like a zinger.  And when no one laughs, the quiet gives off that awkward feeling.  A womp womp womp simultaneously goes off in my head.  The sketches that I know are supposed to be funny, like an ongoing callback joke about the heat, get lost in the dark.  The couple in the doorway delivering the quip are literally left standing in deafening silence.   

I love Steinhagen’s sentiment for his creation.  I wish I had read it before the show began.  I would have appreciated it on a different level.  Still, a play should convey its intent during the theatrical experience without the aide of the playwright’s note in the program.  DEVIL’S DAY OFF has all kinds of possibility.  Steinhagen should provide more instructions for the director and less explanation for the audience.             

Running Time:  Ninety minutes with no intermission

At Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice

Written by Jon Steinhagen

Directed by Ronan Marra

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 3pm

Thru November 22nd

Buy Tickets at www.signalenensemble.com

Production photo courtesy of Johnny Knight

For more reviews and information on Chicago theatre, visit Theatre In Chicago.

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