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  • Angela Allyn

Toxic and Tender Men at Red Orchid

A Red Orchid Theatre experience is often joltingly live and an up close and personal deep dive into how uncomfortable and essential life with other humans (and sometimes animals) can be. Because AROT’s home space has the action practically in your lap, giving visceral closeness to the typical storefront intimacy, the actors must be strong and truly present in bringing the characters to life– they build a reality, an entire world, and for the duration of whatever play you are experiencing, you are actually in it. However, for their current offering, the new play,Turret , by ensemble member Levi Holloway who is also the director, the company chose to inhabit a larger space: the Chopin Theater main stage. This gives the audience a bit more room to distance themselves from the action.  We need it. The intricate architecture of the plot, which slowly reveals itself over the life of the play, requires engaging the thinking brain even as the story evokes strong snake brain emotions–this sort of apprehension is best with a little space from what is happening for perspective.  

The show begins in what appears to be a military bunker with a soldier, Rabbit, played young and vulnerable by Travis A. Knight, who is on a treadmill and wired to sensors.  Green, his superior,played as curmudgeonly by Michael Shannon, fires up an ancient computer and begins a surreal series of questions to his subordinate.  To the observer nothing about the exchange makes real sense and so the viewer is compelled to pay close attention to every detail as the mind tries to piece together meaning. There is a pet cat, Senator, who is found deceased outside the bunker.  Rabbit notes that animals feel pain but they do not suffer.  And we find the bunker contains a crematorium for disposing of remains!The men express affection by telling each other “something kind”. Green wisely reminds Rabbit that shame is a disease and regret is a cancer.  

I cannot tell you the plot of this play because it is so intricate and delicate that any description would ruin the experience and dull the fineness of the creation. I will not tell you the plot because anything I would say would be a spoiler: one of the joys of this play was the slow and repetitive accumulation of actions and lines(this is a post apocalyptic, dystopian Groundhog Day scenario) that lets little seeds of meaning slowly grow up in your mind until the What-It’s-About flowers like a poisonous bloom.

Clearly something terrible has happened in the world and these men are trying to cope and create a tiny country of two but there is something very wrong with their interactions and you won’t  be able to figure it out til the very end.   Their community is briefly and tragically expanded when another survivor, Birdy, in a dusty tuxedo and bear rug, played with pathos and humor by the incomparable Lawrence Grimm (who will take over the part of Green in final week of the run).  There are moments of terrible beauty and aching and tender connection– in particular where Green reenacts a Sadie Hawkins slow dance with Rabbit that will break your heart.  There are so many questions and too few answers in this play so your mind will race through possibilities even after the surprise ending.   Tellingly in the post show talk Michael Shannon said something to the effect of:I never thought life made any sense and I don’t know why people come to the theater for answers.  Holloway gives us no neat package of answers here but the pleasure of puzzling out our own meanings. 

This play is a warning and a tragedy. It spins out the most human of instincts to connect and to destroy like a spider's web.  And it explores masculinity in a compellingly impressionistic way. The bulk of the creative team was male. Grant Sabin’s set is a sci- fi masterpiece. Mike Durst’s lighting is moody and atmospheric, seamlessly integrating with Paul Deziel’s projections. Jeffrey Levin’s score and sound design evoke unease in this psychological thriller. 

The feeling this work engenders is congruent with the anxiousness of my world view. It was cathartic to travel the journey with these masterful actors who told their story with heart and truth. Holloway has hit a nerve here while also sparking serious thoughts about what it is to be a man in dangerous times.  All I can say is see this show if you can snag a ticket and get comfortable with the discomfort. 

Turret has been extended playing Wednesdays through Sundays at The Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division Street in Chicago through June 22, 2024.  For more information and tickets go to

Photos by Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos

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