Review: A Red Orchid Theatre’s Thriller, Turret, Builds a Bunker Home from Memory

Turret, a new show written and directed by Chicago playwright Levi Holloway, is born from a cinematic legacy of horror, apocalypse, and suspense, and it uses the mechanisms of live theater to explore the bonds we hope stand the tests of time and heartbreak. This production celebrates A Red Orchid Theatre's 30th anniversary, written and directed by ensemble member Holloway and starring co-founders Michael Shannon and Lawrence Grimm, as well as the company's associate artistic director Travis A. Knight.

Before Turret's world premiere, Shannon and Knight reflected on the show in an interview with Third Coast Review. Shannon teased, "It's never what you think it is until the end, where you kind of realize what you've been watching." Holloway and Grimm also discussed the play's dramatic roots with us. "It's got these tethers, these kind of dream-driven tethers to works we all know like Alien or The Thing, where you take a few characters and you put 'em in a very tight space and you say, “Hey, survive this," the playwright said.

Turret is set somewhere between our collective past and future. Characters use instant messenger language and slang modern to 2024, like "rizz" and "IRL," but there’s a sense of nostalgia through the music (lots of Frankie Valli and his contemporaries of the ‘60s). We meet Green (played by Shannon) and Rabbit (played by Knight) living in a bunker after a mysterious enemy has decimated their world.

Travis A. Knight, Lawrence Grimm in Turret. Photo by Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos.

The bunker is at once a war-time relic and a futuristic lab. In its center, there's a treadmill inside a metal wheel, akin to something you’d find in a steampunk-style hamster cage. The set includes a balcony, a computer and projector that displays each day’s plan on the wall, shelves of unidentified liquors, an upright piano, a vault door and keypad, and a locked furnace. In the midst of all this, we find a domestic setup, with rugs and a table where the characters drink and play games. The bunker is dingy but well-lit with realistic fluorescent lights, making the audience feel like they could be underground, underwater, or floating through space. (Scenic design by Grant Sabin, lighting design by Mike Durst.)

The groans of a hardworking generator and the bunker's heavy vault door combine with the suspense movie-style soundtrack to bring this world into full volume. It feels like an IMAX theater as surround sound effects create vibrations underfoot and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. In moments of alarm, the lighting is a threatening glow, recreating the feeling of suffocation a person might experience living hundreds of feet underground. As the power surges and fails, audience members become moles in the dark alongside Green, as he navigates the bunker’s many ladders and failsafes with only a flashlight.

In proto-military garb, Green and Rabbit move through their days completing a set training regimen. Green monitors Rabbit’s brain waves as he runs on the treadmill, asking him a range of targeted questions as their answers project on the wall. Though Rabbit often brings up expeditions into the bleak outside world, our first exposure to it is Birdy (played by Grimm), an outside survivor and penpal of Green's who arrives in a dusty tuxedo, a reminder of forgotten luxuries. (Sound design and original music by Jeffrey Levin, costumes by Myron Elliott.)

Travis A. Knight and Michael Shannon; Photo by Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos.

Over the course of Turret’s perfectly proportioned first act, the audience becomes familiar with its central psychological struggles. One character declares, “Suffering is the scrutiny of pain,” parsing out the differences between human and animal consciousness. As the threat of whatever beast looms outside the bunker becomes ever clearer, the script’s lyricism creates a lore about the unknown masses, likening them to millions of burning stars. In contrast, we get to know the very few people seemingly left in the world: Rabbit, Green, and Birdy, who each live in a state of suspended animation while holding out hope for some semblance of a future.

As Rabbit—a younger man than Green and his apparent subordinate—becomes restless to explore the unknown, Green warns him that leaving the bunker means taking the future with him. Green—played at once gruff and tender by Shannon—says at one point, “I don’t want to talk about any version of me that existed outside these walls.” Except, of course he does, because we all inevitably talk about ourselves, even when we don’t mean to. The script’s brilliance lives somewhere between its vague gestures—exchanges of “Something kind,” and “Something kind back,” before bed—and its poetic specificity. For example, it describes "déjà vu" at separate moments as, “When a ghost moves through you,” and, “A call to presence.” 

Deeply reflective and at times grim, this play is also funny: Rabbit runs backwards on his treadmill, he dances with glee, and the pair plays video games on the projector. They have a homecoming soiree and slow dance like teenagers. They play piano and sing together. The combination of these beautiful moments and the gravity of their situation feels like life today (and how it will probably feel if we make it to tomorrow). Every identical day in the bunker is both repetitive and brand new. It feels familiar, reminding the audience that we too could be living in a science experiment doomed to fail over and over again, stuck in movies like The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sphere, or the TV show Lost. In response to their circumstances, Green and Rabbit have formed a kind of self-determined nationalism in their little world. Green asks, “What country remains?” and Rabbit responds, “You and me.” Birdy is stuck in memories 25 years in the past, while Rabbit lives only in the present “like a goldfish,” as Birdy notes. And Green is somewhere in between it all. He says, “We don’t borrow trouble from the future if we can help it.”

Turret is a thriller for the philosophical mind: it asks us how wild animals become domesticated and how domesticated animals become free. It asks what happens to every act of love we pour into another person. It leaves us asking ourselves, “What whole and true thing fuels you today?" Ultimately, Turret gives us déjà vu in its “call to presence” definition. Knowing that tomorrow may happen without you, what will you do, what will you be, and who will you care for today?

Turret has been extended through June 22 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St. Please note two cast changes for performances June 19-22, Lawrence Grimm will replace Michael Shannon as Green and Drew Vidal will play Birdy. An ASL-Interpreted performance will take place Wednesday, May 22, at 7pm. You can get tickets through the box office at 312-943-8722 or online at www.aredorchidtheatre.org.

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

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Row Light

Row Light (she/they) is a Chicago-based culture writer and editor. You can find their work at row-light.com.