Victorious is Bittersweet for The House Theatre
By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 25, 2006 8:25PM
The House Theatre has become the “it girl” of the local theater community by following a very familiar playbook, a story that never seems to get old: core members meet in their college drama program, produce their first Chicago play in some out-of-the-way black box, repeatedly outdo themselves to become a cult favorite and, as word spreads, are deemed the Company Everyone’s Talking About. That moment for the House came in 2004 when they produced San Valentino and the Melancholy Kid, Nathan Allen’s exuberantly imaginative play meets rock concert meets story of a loner cowboy trying to avenge his father’s death. Last year’s eye-popping sequel, Curse of the Crying Heart, transferred Allen’s familiar storyline and characters to feudal Japan. Allen’s cowboy hero fronting a rockabilly group morphed into a masked samurai fronting a surf-rock band. Sword play and martial arts gave way to an astounding flying combat sequence and, months later, some well-deserved Jeff Citations.
The trilogy’s much-anticipated final chapter—Valentine Victorious—lives in very large shadows indeed. And while this show lacks the freshness of San Valentino and the sheer visceral thrills of Curse (no one takes flight this time), it’s still a deeply affecting production. The trilogy’s darkest chapter finds its hero haunted by the ghosts of his father and his true love Angela, floundering in the utterly corrupt gangland of 1930s Chicago, and fighting a madman’s plot for atomic destruction. Its opening scenes hint at the show’s promise and problems. An utterly despondent Valentine (playwright and songwriter Nathan Allen) is framed for murdering a police lieutenant’s bride, then takes the mic for “Soft Answer,” a rock operatic lament beautifully backed by a 16-piece symphonic rock band cheerier than The Arcade Fire, more sober than the Polyphonic Spree. Valentine survives a suicide attempt, then in a nod to the audience, shrugs off a savage beating that feels trivial when you’re basically immortal. It’s the first of many clever, but oddly-timed asides that undercut some of the show’s more serious confrontations. Allen’s leading performance, so impressive in Valentino, has become so familiar that here we take it for granted. That’s true to the character perhaps but also less interesting to watch. Valentine’s victory is so pre-ordained as to be humorously implausible.
Quick laughs aside, the cast and crew strongly believe in this imaginative story and its underlying message of spiritual triumph. Sound and scenic designers lend a palpable feel to a steel factory, Graceland Cemetary, and a Prohibition speakeasy. The ‘living comic book’ effect beautifully enhances the crime drama in Act II. The set is rather spare, but the scrappy Viaduct warehouse is a perfect setting for mob violence, much less perfect acoustically for the musicians.
Fans of the first two shows will appreciate plenty of recurring elements. Our heroes fight for justice, contemplate that fight, then fight some more. Setting things right sure is painful, particularly in this violent world. The authority figure, a hardened but lost Lt. George Reed (deftly played by Jake Minton), learns to trust Valentine when the alternative becomes too grim. In a familiar but effective performance, Carolyn Defrin returns as the wounded and mysterious “Widow”. Her confrontation with a mob boss and silky Act II serenade (“Kiss, Kiss, Bye, Bye”) are among the evening’s highlights. Shawn Pfautsch is villainous enough as the Black Skull, though his mask and cloak prevent him from busting out as he did last year.
Even if you missed the first two chapters, you won’t feel lost at Valentine Victorious. If anything, you’ll have the advantage of discovering this ensemble’s charms for the first time. It’s a play by people who remember how to play and a fitting end to a trilogy from a company whose own story is bound to be even more exciting.
Valentine Victorious plays at The Viaduct, 3111 N Western Ave, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, through March 11. Tickets are $10-19. This show may not be suitable for children, as it contains graphic language and adult situations. More information at www.thehousetheatre.com.
Photo via Michael Brosilow, House Theatre.