REVIEW: Odradrek (House Theatre)


House Theatre finds its groove


Odradrek by Brett Neveu - House Theatre of Chicago - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter Bullard

House Theatre of Chicago presents
Written by Brett Neveu
Music by
Josh Schmidt
Directed by
Dexter Bullard
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The House Theatre of Chicago isn’t known for their gloominess. They often dip into darker subjects, especially death (Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe, The Nutcracker our review ★★★½), sometimes drugs (All the Fame of Lofty Deedsreview ★★★), and, once, children killing each other with metaphorical handguns (Girls Vs. Boysreview). Their newest offering, Odradek, a riff on Kafka via Brett Neveu, is easily the bleakest story I’ve seen by the puckish group. The promotional material compares the play to Hitchcock, and in a semi-disclaimer, artistic director Nathan Allen warns that the “show is scary.” I firmly believe that the hardest emotion to evoke in an audience is not glee, or sadness, or despair, but fear. To be honest, Odradek never really scared me. And it’s not very Hitchcockian; it feels more like “Saw” meets Beverly Cleary.

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter BullardThe play is beautifully realized by designers Collette Pollard and Lee Keenan. The play works best when seen as performance art, not a intellectual venture. Neveu and Dexter Bullard, two newcomers to the House, want this play to be both a tragically complex story and a macabre poem. They can’t nail down either. Neveu’s language is delightfully lyrical, but it doesn’t make for a coherent piece of drama. Realities, fantasy, and hallucination are blurred and the three characters’ motivations are convoluted. However, the show still takes the audience on a ride in true House style.

The play centers around a Boy (Joey Steakley), who comes from a broken, but not abusive, home. He lives with his Father (David Parkes), who enters into an ethically-questionable romance with the Boy’s Doctor (Carolyn Defrin). The Boy, on the other hand, enters into a relationship with a monster that lives under the stairs, Odradek. Slowly, the Boy slips down a path of confusion and self-mutilation.

The plot has a few holes, which I’ll wager are intentional. The Doctor is pretty clearly a primary care physician, and the Boy very clearly requires some facetime with a psychologist. The Boy’s wounds provided another puzzle, because it wasn’t clear if they were imagined or actual. As the play progresses, the grip on reality loosens and every aspect of the story comes into question.

The Boy’s affliction is linked to his parent’s divorce, but not much is explained. Neveu relies heavily on images, metaphors, and anecdotes for mood, but none of these provide stakes for the Boy. Colors are especially important—the Doctor asks the Boy what color his mother’s eyes are, while Odradek quizzes him about the hues of blood and sinew. But these tangents don’t explain why he misses his mom or why he chooses to hurt himself.

Even with the stylistic clashes, the cast handles the play well. Parkes’ performance is fascinating to watch in his House debut. He gives the Father a gritty, Chicago-style treatment that isn’t found in many House shows. Defrin, always a pleasure, plays against him decently, even though she’s more presentational. Steakley comes off zombiefied in a challenging role, and his age is very hard to pinpoint (I sort of figured he was around 25 but still living at home). He hits astride as his story unravels.

Infusing the company with new blood this season is a truly refreshing idea. In recent years, the House seemed to be stumbling at times. Odradek is a worthy venture and dives into territory that the company had successfully plunged into in the past. But it lacks heft. The play doesn’t reveal much about mental illness, divorce, or a connection between the two. Its value lies in how it strikes the ear, the eye, and the soul – not the mind.

Rating: ★★★

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Creative Team Bios

BRETT NEVEU: Brett Neveu’s upcoming productions include Red Bud with The Royal Court Theatre, Odradek with The House Theatre and Do The Hustle with Writers’ Theatre. Past work includes productions with Writers’ Theatre, The Goodman Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, A Red Orchid Theatre, TimeLine Theatre Company and American Theater Company. He is the recipient of the Ofner Prize for New Work, the Emerging Artist Award from The League of Chicago Theatres, an After Dark Award for Outstanding Musical (Old Town with Strawdog Theatre Company) and has developed plays with companies including The New Group, The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens and is a resident-alum with Chicago Dramatists. He is also an ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theatre, a member of The Playwrights’ Union and a member of the Center Theatre Group’s Playwrights’ Workshop. Brett has been commissioned by The Royal Court Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre, TimeLine Theatre Company, Writers’ Theatre, Strawdog Theatre, and has several of his plays published through Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatic Publishing. Brett has taught writing at Northwestern University, DePaul University, Second City Training Center and currently lives in Los Angeles.

DEXTER BULLARD: Dexter Bullard is an award-winning director dedicated to directing new plays and creating original improvisational and experimental theater for Chicago and beyond. Recent directing credits include Mistakes Were Made Off-Broadway at The Barrow Street Theater, The DIALogues at Links Hall, Reverie with Second City at The Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, Mistakes Were Made at A Red Orchid Theatre, Lady at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York, Brett Neveu’s Gas for Less at the Goodman Theatre, The Butcher of Baraboo with Steppenwolf’s First Look Rep, and Grace at Northlight Theater. In 2004, Dexter was awarded the Lucille Lortel Award for Tracy Letts’ Bug at The Barrow Street Theater, as well as a Drama Desk Nomination. In 1995 Dexter co–founded Plasticene Physical Theater, whose critically–acclaimed experimental works have been featured at The Steppenwolf Studio, The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, The Storefront Theatre, Performing Arts Chicago, MCA, and in New York City. With the Plasticene company, he has directed and collaboratively created fourteen original works including The Palmer Raids (2003) and From A Fading Light (2010). Since 1996, Dexter has also directed with The Second City, developing revues at E.T.C. Chicago and at Second City Detroit. For three years, he led a Second City National Touring Company to many destinations including Vienna and the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Back in 1990, Dexter founded The Next Lab at The Next Theatre where he directed Bouncers, for which he received a Jefferson Citation and an After Dark award for his direction. As Associate Artistic Director at Next Theatre, he directed and/or created eight shows for mainstage and Lab. He has also directed projects for Famous Door Theatre, American Theatre Company, Hartford Stage Company, several times for A Red Orchid Theatre. Dexter is the Head of Graduate Acting and teaches acting, improvisation, and directing at The Theatre School at DePaul University.

JOSH SCHMIDT: BROADWAY: Brighton Beach Memoirs (with Fitz Patton) OFF BROADWAY: As Composer/Co-Author – ADD1NG MACH1N3 (Minetta Lane), Whida Peru (59E59); Incidental Scores: When the Rain Stops Falling (Lincoln Center) Fifty Words (MCC Theater). As Sound Designer – Crime and Punishment (59E59), many others. CHICAGO: As Composer/Co-Author A Minister’s Wife (Writers Theatre). As Composer/Sound Designer – Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Writers’ Theatre (Associate Artist);, Northlight Theatre, Next Theatre Company, Seanachai Theatre Company, many others. REGIONAL: Over 100 productions at venues across the country including The Kennedy Center, Ford’s Theatre (Washington DC); Seattle Repertory Theatre (WA), Alley Theatre (Houston, TX); Arizona Theater Company (AZ); ClevelandPlayhouse (OH), Kansas City Rep (MO); South Coast Repertory (CA);Delaware Theatre Company (DE); 9 Seasons at American Players Theatre including recent world premiere of the original musical GIFT OF THE MAGI (Spring Green, WI) Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Chamber Theatre, First Stage Children’s Theatre, Next Act Theatre, Renaissance Theatreworks, Bialystock and Bloom, Theatre X, Milwaukee Shakespeare (Milwaukee, WI); Madison Repertory Theatre, University Theatre (Madison, WI). Many others. TEACHING: Lectures at Harvard, Suffolk, Mississippi-Oxford, Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His work was presented as part of the Prague Quadrennial in 2007. MEMBER: ASCAP. AWARDS: Lortel, Outer Critics, Jeff, ASCAP, NEA/TCG. UPCOMING: A Minister’s Wife at Lincoln Center Theater, many others.

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