Review: “Borealis”

THEATER Borealis-The House Theatre of Chicago 2018 photo by Michael Brosilow


Where: The House Theatre of Chicago, 1543 W. Division St.
When: through Oct. 21
Tickets: $30-$50
Phone: 773-769-3832

Theater Critic

The world premiere of Bennet Fisher’s “Borealis,” the season opener at The House Theatre of Chicago, tries to combine a sci-fi adventure, coming-of-age tale, and corporate satire, but the sprawling show directed by Monty Cole ends up not succeeding completely on any of these counts.

The evening gets off to a confusing start with a knock-down drag-out fight between a man and a woman. But then they make up, and we eventually learn that they are Absalom (Desmond Gray) and his 13-year-old sister, Cozbi (Tia Pinson). They are someplace cold but dream of living in a tropical climate, and he goes off to his job on an oil rig promising to give his two-week notice so they can move.

In the next scene, Cozbi receives a heavily redacted video message from Absalom implying he’s in trouble up there—turns out he’s in ANWR, Alaska—and unable to return. So she sets out to find him with only a ratty winter poncho and his ax for protection, though later on she’s given a handbook on strategy to help her learn corporate-speak.

Surviving frigid conditions and a hostile terrain that would kill a normal person, Cozbi ends up in what seems to be the corporate compound of a big oil company. Fisher’s premise, amusing but not exactly new, is that the greed-driven corporate culture guided by the “ten Rs” (don’t ask) drives people crazy or turns them into automatons or, worse, monsters.

Our unlikely heroine meets a variety of these creatures (Johnny Arena, Paige Hoffman, Ben Hertel) in outrageous get-ups—fanciful costumes by Izumi Inaba—and is humiliated, threatened, and abused in various ways but often gets her own back using the book and sometimes the ax. The only employee who will help her is Abbot (Karissa Murrell Myers), who runs the commissary and gives her some discontinued treats like a very high-energy beverage to bribe the workers.

Eventually, Cozbi encounters the boss, Burke (McKenzie Chinn), a devious being (you can tell by her snake-like attire) who at first tries to sweet-talk the teenager into believing her brother is happy where he is, an assertion that the uncensored version of the video message bears out. When that doesn’t work, however, Burke’s fangs come out—or in this case, her serpent’s tail—though Cozbi fights back.

Abbot comes to her aid again, and arduously crawling through a pipeline, Cozbi reaches the rig that Absalom is on with two coworkers. But the reunion isn’t at all what she expected. In fact, her brother at first claims not even to know her.

Unfortunately, the script sends enough mixed messages that we can’t quite figure out the point of the parable. Having gotten a promotion and pay raise, is Absalom content where he is? Or has he been brain-washed as some of the staging suggests? If the latter is the case, when he’s released, why doesn’t he go with his sister? Or has Cozbi been mistaken all along? Does she have to learn that adults are not to be trusted at all? Or that growing up means relying only on yourself, even though that involves a sense of loss? And why does she head further north rather than south at the end?

The House digs into its formidable bag of tricks to bring the story to life, but the results are uneven. The audience sits on either side of the playing area, and Joseph Burke’s projections on the walls behind us really conjure up a freezing wasteland—and a “blizzicane”–with the help of Lee Keenan’s lighting and Sarah D. Espinoza’s sound design. Eleanor Kahn’s scenic design depends on interesting geometric walls and a slow-moving motorized platform that in the raised position makes it difficult for most of the audience to see the action on top of it. Movement director Breon Arzell keeps everyone in motion, but the blocking becomes repetitive and tiresome.

While some of the satire hits its mark, and there are recognizable tropes like a worker named Parsons (Arena) showing endless cell phone photos of this children to an impatient Cozbi, I kept feeling like I was missing specific references. The dialogue is occasionally witty but more often dull, a frequent problem with House’s original plays. The characters, especially Cozbi and Absalom, seem underwritten; I think we’re supposed to read more complexity into their relationship than we see. Abbot is the only one I cared about, thanks to Myers’ lively performance.

Like quite a few of The House’s productions, “Borealis” at its core is about female empowerment. That’s a good thing, but the play and production need a lot more work to get the message across in a meaningful way that will have an emotional impact.