Every once in a while, some magic happens in a theater. And it’s just as likely to be a storefront or a church basement or a former school as a big Equity house. I thought about that while I was watching It Is Magic, a world premiere play by Theater Oobleck in the basement of Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park.
Mickle Maher, who wrote It Is Magic, is a cofounder of Theater Oobleck and a prolific and talented Chicago playwright who you may never have heard of. He describes It Is Magic as a mashup of Macbeth and “The Three Little Pigs.” It’s actually one of those love letters to the theater—a delightfully wacky story about a community theater holding auditions for a new adult version of “The Three Little Pigs” in the basement while the Mortier Civic Playhouse production of the Scottish Play goes on upstairs.
Yes, The Scottish Play—because only once does any actor say the actual name of the play and that one utterance has a calamitous effect. (Theater people, in case you haven’t heard this before, believe in the curse of the Scottish Play. They believe that disaster will strike if the title of the play or its leading character is spoken inside the theater except during an actual rehearsal or performance. There are cleansing rituals.)
Tim Padley (Jerome Beck) is auditioning for the role of Wolf for exacting playwright/director Deb Chandler (Diana Slickman). He has repeated his Wolf monologue 30-some times, but despite her vocal and sotto voce suggestions for different approaches, she despairs, saying,
“Yes, and when you’re over there, trying your best, wiggling your mouth, making my words into sound — A FLUID OF INDIFFERENCE floods my ear canals and my eyes cloud and I start thinking only of everything that’s wrong with the world. The world’s deep sorrow….”
Now, after two hours, Tim needs to get upstairs for his role as Second Murderer in the play (that why he’s wearing a kilt). Deb’s sister Sandy (Laura T. Fisher) sits at the audition table too; she desperately wants to play Wolf but Deb prefers her for Pig of Sticks. She’s never cast in anything, Sandy complains. “For 20 years, I’ve never been cast in anything.” Auditions are a curse, she says. “For me…. A curse against myself, that when I speak it, each time, transforms me to a voiceless and be-darkened thing, a creature of shadows and stillness, otherwise known as A Person Who Is Not In The Play.”
Both Deb and Sandy are employees of the Mortier Civic Playhouse: vastly underpaid employees, of course. “It’s like scratching in the dirt of a sunless wood, working in community theater. Scratching for roots and grubs for a thousand years, working administration in a community theater,” Deb says.
Their employer and the alternately arrogant and depressed artistic director is Ken Mason (a topknotted Colm O’Reilly), who comes down to see how the audition is going. Not well, is the answer. He asks Sandy to audition for Wolf and, after some hesitation, she complies. At first, her audition seems to be very good, but he finally slams her with “No, you’re all wrong.”
That sets off a series of events that lead to a hilarious and poignant ending, including the appearance of Elizabeth (Heather Riordan) from somewhere else, possibly outside Mortier or outside this world, or she may be one of the three magical sisters. There are many surprises in this script and you need to experience them for yourself.
If It Is Magic sounds like it has a lot of inside-theater about it, never fear. Yes, theater folk will especially enjoy it (the call-back joke, “acting is a trick”), but if you’re enough of a theater fan to read this review this far, you will too. It’s not a perfect play but it’s a guaranteed 95 minutes of theatrical pleasure with a very clever script and excellent performances by all five actors.
As with all Theater Oobleck productions, there is no director because “All our works are created and developed by members of the Oobleck ensemble, working in concert to create a collaborative vision without an overseeing director.” Sound design is by Dennis Huston, lighting by Martha Bayne and costumes by Melanie Vitaterna. Julia Rhoads is responsible for choreography and Mickle Maher handles set design.
Maher is author of the Oobleck plays There Is A Happiness That Morning Is and Song About Himself. Most recently, he created book and lyrics for Small Ball, an original musical about basketball commissioned by the Houston Rockets, for that city’s Catastrophic Theatre.
It Is Magic by Oobleck Theater at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, closed June 29 and is being remounted for three weekends July 19 through August 4. Performances are Friday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $20, “more if you’ve got it, free if you’re broke.” Reserve them here.
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