Victims of Duty Showcases the Shape of Michael Shannon

Left to right: Michael Shannon, Guy Van Swearingen and Karen Aldridge (by fadeout photo).

Ubiquitous big-budget bad guy Michael Shannon returns to his roots, his theater company, his kind of town in the remount of A Red Orchid’s Victims of Duty.

He reunites with original co-star Guy Van Swearingen (as seeming cipher Choubert) and director Shira Piven in Eugene Ionesco’s somewhat autobiographical absurdist play about memory and relationship. The 1995 partnership is updated with vibrant Karen Aldridge (as wife Madeleine, who holds a strong yoga dolphin plank near the end), and brief interactions with Rich Cotovsky (as poet Nicolas D’eu, sporting a beret) and ensemble member Mierka Gierten (as the mysterious, mostly silent, Lady).

The couple is chit-chatting in their flat, a sparse, white expanse dominated by a claw-foot tub (designed by Danila Korogodsky and Samantha Rausch), when Choubert evokes the inevitable character in the meta-narrative:

Drama’s always been realistic and there’s always been a detective about…
Every play’s an investigation brought to a successful conclusion…
There’s a riddle and it’s solved in the final scene…
Sometimes earlier…you might as well give the game away at the start…

So Shannon’s Detective shows up and propels Choubert into the mid-century version of Get Out’s ‘the sunken place,’” a complicated, sometimes terrible tangle of remembrances of past relationships and experiences, elicited to find the apartment’s previous tenant.

Left to right: Karen Aldridge, Guy Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon (by fadeout photo).

The poet ruminates on the frame itself, asserting that he is “not a writer and proud of it!” When the Detective replies, “Everyone ought to write,” D’eu says, “No point. We’ve got Ionesco and Ionesco, that’s enough.”

But we’ve got more than the playwright. The audience gets a close-up master class with Shannon, a nuanced actor adept at vocalizations from tentative to tyrannical. Among a stellar cast, he’s riveting and luminous as his fraught character careens from the professional to the personal quest. He’s funny, he’s fierce, and still humble enough to share his prodigious gifts with the city where he launched.

Shannon’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water is evoked too, as the characters slog through the tub and another pool on the side, soaking their clothes and covering the stage with puddles of liquid alongside unresolved angst.

The production is punctuated by film snippets flashed on the back wall, including tai-chi practitioners, sea gulls, and White House white supremacist Stephen Miller flicks on momentarily when the Detective says:

Long live the white race…
I should like a posthumous decoration…
I am … a Victim … of Duty…

All the characters confess to the titular function, creating a fluid stew of want and need, a concoction of past and present in a provocative production.

Victims of Duty plays through August 5 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. The run is sold out, but some tickets are being periodically released, and a standby line starts an hour before every show.


Guy Van Swearingen and Karen Aldridge (by fadeout photo).
Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.

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