Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Today, the girls take in the newest play by the oldest social justice theatre troupe in Chicago. Let’s listen in on their conversation…
“But what if a pedestrian comes by?” asked Dania, glancing towards the window of the storyfront.
“They did, did you not notice?” Eleanor said. “There was this one guy, he was looking in through the window during the graffiti scene, trying to figure out what was happening. That’s kinda what happens in a storefront like this.”
“Storyfront,” Gwen added, insistently. “A name as clever as it is a terrible pun.”
“Well, I certainly like it,” Dania said, picking up her coat. “I don’t think we have to get 100 yards away to say that.”
The three glanced around the room. A diverse latinx audience was greeting the actors, out of character but in costume, as they cleaned up the space. They dutifully followed the instructions of the house manager to fold up the chairs they were sitting on, stacking them in the corner of the room. Despite the throng of people moving towards the corner, they stacked the chairs with relative ease.
“It’s like a middle school assembly all over again,” Gwen mused.
“A little,” Eleanor said. “Way higher production values than anything done there.”
Bracing for the chill outside, they found it seasonable on Ashland Avenue – perhaps warmed by the energy of the crowd congregating on the sidewalk, or from the panaderia across the street.
“Ugh, I don’t want to have to fold this,” Gwen said, holding the poster for the show. “I want to hang it up when I’m back.”
“But then you won’t be able to read the bios,” Eleanor said. She turned the poster to reveal Free Street Theater’s innovative program design – bios printed down the right side, with a massive director’s note on the left (“it’s all shade,” the house manager had quipped as she handed one to Gwen).
As they walked up the street, towards the bus stop, Gwen carefully twisted the poster into a tube, carrying it tenderly. “I’m sure they wouldn’t care about preserving it too perfectly,” she added. “It’s not like they don’t have more posters.”
“Programs,” Dania added, “or whatever they are, technically.”
“Both,” Eleanor said. “But yeah, there were totally people just walking by during the show. One guy gave some serious shade to the girl with the sparklers.”
“Oh, I do remember that,” Dania said. “When did that happen? Was that after the ice cream van bit, or before it?”
“I believe it was after,” Gwen said. “The ice cream bit was fantastic, though. And the transition into the bus scene, how seamless it was with the actor movement and the sound design – you heard me, I actually said ‘that’s smart’ in the theatre.”
“I heard you,” Eleanor said. “I’m pretty sure most people heard you.”
“I mean, no point in being quiet there, right?” Dania said. “No one else was. But what was the sparkler bit?”
“It was the girl with the glasses doing it,” Eleanor said. “The one who did the monologue about being high.”
“Right!” Dania said. “Oh man, that monologue got really…really dark, actually.”
“I know,” Gwen said. “There’s that one stretch, where she’s talking about immigration and the Big Bang, and it’s only like thirty seconds long, and then it just…diffuses in the most anticlimactic way possible. It’s very effective.”
“That’s sort of the show, honestly,” Eleanor said, pulling out her folded poster-program. “Like, what did they say in the program? How it’s not supposed to be a clean, concrete message?”
“It’s a collection of vignettes,” Gwen said. “I assume each was developed from a different interview or story they collected from the people they worked with. And each performer got their solo moment as well.”
“Here it is,” Eleanor said. She read from the note: “‘We made a play about being Mexican in Chicago. It’s not a linear, character-driven play. It also isn’t a play that rehearsed community-based, docudrama clichés to serve up usual identity porn.'”
“What a sentence, honestly,” Gwen commented.
“‘Our task,'” Eleanor continued, “‘was to make a play that spoke to the breadth and complexity of being of Mexican descent in Chicago.’ They succeeded at that, for sure.”
“Oh, certainly,” Gwen said. “It’s a powerful, impactful play. I didn’t expect it would be so well directed, too! The ideas they have – the balloons before the monologue about––”
“Oh my God,” Dania said. “Did you see the woman sitting in the back, across from us?”
“The crying one?”
“All it takes is those four popped balloons,” Eleanor said. “You get everything.”
“If you understand it,” Dania clarified. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I thought it was pretty dang good. But there’s obviously stuff in the show I’m not going to get. Like, I know about the whole quinceañera thing, with the dress.”
“But, I don’t personally relate to it, at least not in the way the audience probably does. But, you know, it’s still funny, and tragic.”
“Yes,” Gwen said. “It’s both clearly personalized to the experiences of the target demographic, while remaining accessible emotionally to people with different experiences. The bit with the gay character, where they come back out of the bathroom––”
“Yes!” Eleanor exclaimed. “Yes!”
“I know there’s a whole world of meaning behind that moment that I’m not getting,” Gwen said. “But I’m enjoying it for what it is.”
“I can’t tell…” Dania began, before pausing. “Hm. Is it too obvious, or too generic?”
“The heart cookie disassembly line bit. Like, I can’t decide whether I liked it because it was clear what was happening, or whether I disliked it because I couldn’t tell exactly what was happening.”
“I like it because I couldn’t tell,” Eleanor said.
“Or yeah, any combination of the two,” Dania said. “I mean, get down to it, and…well, shoot me, but I like proscenium theatre.”
“You like bourgeios theatre,” Gwen said. “Finished theatre.”
“Call it what you will, I wouldn’t normally go to a play literally playing in a storefront.”
Dania glared at Eleanor, grinning her way. “Whatever you call it,” she continued, “a play where scenes aren’t lit by the stage manager literally holding a light on the guy.”
“But that was so cool!” Eleanor said, referring to the scene. “It made the whole thing feel all covert and secretive. Plus he mentions being in a flashlight beam during the monologue, so it’s not like there was no reason for it.”
The girls reached the bus stop. Dania and Gwen sat, as Eleanor leaned against the glass. She looked out at the darkened streets of the South Side – a few brick buildings, wire fences, crab grass in the sidewalks. A scene from the play came back to her, from near the end. A man stood in a twenty-year-old shirt and bemoaned the rebranding of his bar as “vintage.” An issue of gentrification, obviously – Eleanor has secretly expected that a play about Chicago’s south side would inevitably turn to the topic. In fact, it hadn’t been the first time in the play had mentioned it, or at least implied it. The graffiti monologue copped to the problem, as did the very nature of the storyfront itself – reclaimed from a latinx electronics repairman, rented to the company for only $1 a month, preserved as a safe space for latinx narratives…
Reclaimed, safe space, low rent, Eleanor thought. It’s like white millennial bingo, who says this show doesn’t have crossover appeal.
“One small criticism,” Gwen offered. “Maybe don’t have your heartfelt father/daughter scene be immediately followed by a love scene between the same two performers in new roles.”
“I noticed that,” Dania said. “Didn’t want to say anything, but yeah. Those awful shirts…”
“Again, a longer story behind those shirts I don’t know,” Gwen said.
“But what a great thing to see onstage if you know it,” Eleanor said. “Or the club scene, with the water being poured on them.”
“I got confused by that,” Gwen said. “Is that supposed to be sweat, or is that something that happens?”
“It’s interpretive, probably,” Eleanor said. “But I remember the cups with the lights in them. Good, solid prop design on that one. Keeps the scene lit while still letting all the lights move around all crazy.”
“And then afterwards,” Gwen said, when they all stop and walk out the front door…”
“Towards the sparklers!” Dania shouted. “That was where it happened! It was after the club bit!”
“Right, right,” Gwen said. “When the bystander walked by. Didn’t understand what was happening.”
“I mean. neither did I,” Dania said. “To be honest.”
A truck passed by them, silencing them with a growl as it continued up the street. They passed another moment in the dark, waiting, before Dania spoke again.
“I mean, I guess the right people understood it.”
“Or felt it,” she added. “Whatever the theatre language is, Gwen.”
“It resonates with the right audiences,” Gwen said.
Eleanor checked her phone for the bus schedule.
“I wish we had sat in the front row,” Gwen added. “Whatever they were eating in the kitchen scene looked delicious.”
Image Credit: Free Street Theater