Storefront Theater Roundup: Neo-Futurist’s Cult-Show and Theatre Above the Law’s Prelude to a Kiss

We review two shows now running in Chicago's storefront theater scene. Did you know that Chicago has more than 200 theater companies, many of them small and performing in storefronts or used-to-be-something-else venues? Others are "itinerant" theaters that perform at venues operated by larger companies such as Steppenwolf Theatre, Raven Theatre and Theater Wit. Most of these 200 are members of the League of Chicago Theatres.

Neo-Futurists Invite Audiences to Drink the Kool-Aid

With Cult Show, the NeoFuturists are up to their old tricks again, which is to say combining the actual biographical experience of their performers with a healthy dose of silliness, blending goofiness with heartfelt truth. This version—which examines the basic human need for belonging juxtaposed with the dangers of "groupthink"—is only partially successful. But, when it does succeed, the results are touching.

Let's start with the silliness: the show opens with cast members slowly processing into the theater wearing preposterous get-ups in shades of red, yellow and blue. As they make their stately progress around the room, each stops to reverence the image of an orange hexagon: the icon of the group's object of worship, "Hexel" and his (its?) six "commandments:" honesty, humility, homecoming, health, humanity and happiness. Devotion to these six themes among the "cult" involves a lot of off-stage shouting, plus what I can only call a "plastic bag ballet" that has to be seen to be believed.

The Neo-Futurists’ Cult Show. Photo by Justin Lynk.

But, when the silliness stops and the actors each have an opportunity to share their personal stories about groups and belongings, the show finds its center and delivers (occasionally) gripping performances.

The show is written and directed by Jasmine Henri Jordan and Audrey Polinski—who also appear in the cast, where they are joined by Alex Hovi, DeVaughn Loman, Joanna Jamerson, and Lara Johnson as the other members of the Hexel cult. Some of the performers' messages carry less weight (Loman's strident anti-weed message) than others (Johnson's attempts to connect to her Choctaw heritage and Jamerson's truly harrowing account of her family's near escape from Jim Jones' Peoples Temple)—but all six bring refreshing moments of truth amid the surrounding make-believe of the ersatz cult.

Cult Show runs through May 25 at Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 North Ashland. Tickets are $25 at neofuturists.org.

Theatre Above the Law's Prelude to a Kiss—Just a Peck on the Cheek

When Craig Lucas first wrote and staged Prelude to a Kiss in 1988, it was widely seen as an allegory for couples affected by the AIDS crisis: young love doomed to die before it has had a chance to fully bloom. In the ensuing years, that particular health crisis has been supplanted by another, but the show's questions about the strength of romantic connections endures.

Zoe Moroko and Eric James Norman. Photo by Tyler Core.

Unfortunately, director (and company founder) Tony Lawry's overly spare minimalist production gives the cast little support to carry the story. In particular, the first third of the one-act serves as a sort of overlong preamble to a prelude— a slow set-up before we get to the play's fateful kiss.

The minimalist approach, intended to focus attention on the acting and dialogue, unfortunately detracted from the show's impact. The absence of physical objects often left the actors' pantomimed actions feeling awkward and imprecise, breaking the immersion and leaving audiences acutely aware of the missing elements.

Prelude to a Kiss. Photo by Tyler Core.

The one standout performance is the show was delivered by Kingsley Day, a veteran of the Chicago theater scene, whose performances of both the "old man" and then the body-swapped heroine of the story were expertly delivered. Day has pinpoint comic timing and handles more dramatic moments with equal skill.

Prelude to a Kiss is playing through May 26 at Jarvis Square Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis. The one-act runs 90 minutes. Tickets are available at www.theatreatl.org.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.