Underwhelmed. Puzzled about it. When I attend a play heralded as a product of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, I expect to experience a performance of depth, resonance and drama. I attended Water Tower Theatre’s opening night regional premiere performance of Ike Holter’s Hit the Wall (running through August 20), anticipating a wow. I waited and waited. And waited. The furrow in my brow deepened. It was a well-dressed and executed sketch, seemed overwhelmed by the size of the WTT main stage space. It featured a sparse cast of 10, offering an array of predictable, shallow stereotypes, and one homophobic policeman with a defined character arc. Went home to do some research. What was I missing?
Context. Originally written by lauded playwright Ike Holter for a “storefront company” called The Inconvenience, to be performed in Steppenwolf’s The Garage (seats 80) in 2012, a “dedicated space to support emerging artists and cultivate new audiences…emblematic of Steppenwolf’s founding as a storefront theatre company.” I see. Steppenwolf’s space for edgy, evolving work. In an undated article on Steppenwolf’s website, The Inconvenience’s Artistic Director Chris Chmelik expounds on the events that supposedly launched the gay rights movement. “ There is no absolute record of what exactly transpired on the night of June 28, 1969 that set the events at the Stonewall Inn in motion. There was no planning or organization behind the riot that ensued. It was a collective impulse that electrified a group of people who had been pushed beyond the breaking point. The Stonewall Inn riots forced the gay rights issue into the public perspective, and loudly told those who would hate that the response would no longer be passivity. A one-night challenge from a seedy bar full of castoffs gave life to a powerful mass movement.” A collective impulse that electrified a group of people who had been pushed beyond the breaking point. Now that sounds quite dramatic, right? Emblematic. In the WTT production, I saw nobody who demonstrated they were either pushed beyond the breaking point or electrified by a collective principle. Is the play at fault or the production? Did some more research. In his February 19, 2012 Chicago Tribune review of The Inconvenience’s production directed by Eric Hoff, nationally respected theatre critic Chris Jones describes the play as a “kind of interactive historical happening with a punch” with “consistently honest acting”. He calls Holter’s “gutsy, beautiful and riveting new work…a spectacular piece of young, raw, impassioned Chicago theatre.” I wasn’t enthralled with the conventionally written characters I observed in the play (particularly the two guys heckling passersby from a porch). Sorry, Chris. Although the acting seemed honest and fluid enough in the WTT production, it did not inspire in me the welling up of superlatives The Inconvenience’s did in Chris. It felt rather flat, with more of a “Men At Work” cheesy vibe than an awe-inspiring paradigm shifting one. Granted, Walter Lee is always engaging to watch on stage, playing drag queen Carson. Gregory Lush gives the show’s most compelling performance with its most nuanced character, the homophobic, nameless cop who relentlessly baits and abuses the gays portrayed with utter disgust. The fault lies with both in my estimation. I saw a sketchy play in a muddy production that would have fit better into a more intimate space, with usually outstanding regional actors like Garret Storms underused, giving unremarkable, cardboard-like performances.
On the other hand technical production values promise that WTT has stepped up a notch in this arena. Costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith reflect the era spot on…materials, textures, colors and style…and work well with the lighting (sometimes a challenge at WTT previously), Lighting design by Jason Foster creates a garish, sordid réalité that establishes mood but never shrouds actors in too much shadow. Music coordinator Shawn Magill collaborates beautifully with sound designer Kellen Voss to foster and feature the raucous, slightly raunchy, but never overpowering, musical accompaniment that weaves throughout the performance by Deep Ellum band The Mystiks, led by “Baroque rock composer/ guitarist transman Ivan Dillard.” Sound, lights and attire create effective tone and mood in this production, lending it an intense, artistically professional finish. Jeff Colangelo’s fight choreography gives reliable veracity to the violence perpetrated against gays in 1969.
Hit The Wall may have resonated with critics in 2012 and have value as a record of what might have happened on the night of June 28, 1969 outside the Stonewall Inn. I’m as ardent an LGBT ally as any straight member of this arts community and thrilled to see what Stonewall may have engendered. But superb work of performance art Hit The Wall is not, not in the way Sunday In The Park With George is, for instance. When was that Sondheim classic last mounted professionally in this region? It’s running now at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre (The 2017 Revival).
Visit www.watertowertheatre.org for tickets to Hit The Wall. Directed by Water Tower Theatre’s Artistic Director Joanie Schultz
Chris Jones’ 2012 review of Hit The Wall at Steppenwolf’s The Garage: