Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

A Red Orchid Theatre
Review by Karen Topham

Also see Christine's recent review of The Duchess of Malfi and Karen's recent reviews of Baked! The Musical, and Birthday Candles

Natalie West, Stephanie Shum, and Taylor Blim
Photo by Evan Hanover
Early in the new play Revolution, playwright Brett Neveu has a character spontaneously invite someone she hardly knows to an intimate birthday celebration. The character, Puff (Stephanie Shum), has already been established as somewhat introverted and not very social, so why the sudden gregariousness with a stranger? It seems to be an instinctive recognition of another human being in need of friendship, but it is very much out of character. Still, this small act, as such things tend to do, has a big impact. Revolution doesn't cover territory that is, well, revolutionary–the title actually refers to the salon where Puff and her best friend Jame (Taylor Blim) work and where Puff has just been named manager–but Neveu recognizes that small actions can trigger personal revolutions, as this one certainly does.

Kotryna Hilko's stark scenic design lands us in the alley behind the salon, which seems to be located in an outdoor shopping center. Director Travis A. Knight keeps the dialogue crisp and flowing as a counter to the little natural movement the setting lends itself to. He does have his characters move around, but it is a bit artificial at times. Honestly, more stasis here would have been realistic and perfectly fine. The focus, as it should be, is on the characters and their relationships–and what changes occur on this particular birthday.

Puff and Jame are hanging out in that alley, using the concrete stairs for seating (as one would) and talking about whatever comes into their minds (as one does). Blim's Jame is easily the more outgoing of the two–the script acknowledges that, for a manager, Puff's people skills need work–and she has set herself the goal of making sure that her BFF is able to enjoy the one day of the year when she shouldn't have to worry so much about everything. Fortunately, Jame is the type of person who naturally does whatever is necessary to make a moment more fun, because Puff is more prone to curling up against the wall than partying.

The third person who enters this scene is Georgia, wonderfully characterized by Natalie West as the kind of woman who pretty much inhabits her own planet but is grateful for the opportunity to forge friendships with these younger people. Bigger than life, Georgia seems constantly a bit dazed, as if she is experiencing whatever is happening second-hand or on a time delay, but her lifetime of (often unusual) experiences enlivens the evening as she–possibly for the first time in a long time–finds herself fitting in with these former strangers. Like Jame, Georgia is generous and eager to please; the first thing she does is to run to her car where she happens to have an entire deli tray in a cooler. (Don't ask.) Whereas Jame is smoothly social, though, Georgia is a bit ... off. In fact, Puff wonders early on if she should have invited her, but the spontaneous action–so bold, especially for a woman unused to being bold–brings rewards (even if they are not always what is expected).

Blim and Shum are excellent here, but this is absolutely West's show. From the moment we first meet her–Neveu is a strong writer and realizes that he needs time to establish the less flamboyant characters before introducing the unusual–she dominates the stage. We are not exactly sure who she is (and neither are the two friends) and what will happen; Georgia takes social awkwardness to hitherto unimaginable levels as she desperately tries to fit in, going so far as to invent entire scenes from her life so she can be entertaining, but then almost immediately recanting them due to her own insecurity when she realizes how oddly she is probably being perceived. West's slow, stiff, almost painful gait, distorted facial expressions, and deliberately slurred speech patterns help paint Georgia as an outcast, but right now she finds herself suddenly swept into this unforeseen birthday celebration with a duo who seem to accept her as she is.

There are a lot of twists and turns within this unexpected party–and I will not spoil them for you–but these three very different people are a joy to share an afternoon or evening with. Neveu's plays at A Red Orchid and elsewhere are tremendously varied in style and theme and Chicago is fortunate to have him among us. This one hits on pretty much all cylinders; it is vibrant, unusual, hilarious, and even poignant. It's an easy play to recommend.

Revolution, presented by A Red Orchid Theatre, runs through October 29, 2023, at 1531 N. Wells, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit