Hell is hilarious

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By Doug Deuchler

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The Collective, the production branch of Concordia University's drama department, has just premiered a riotously funny yet deeply thoughtful production. The play is by Will Dunne, a well-known playwright lately affiliated with Chicago Dramatists. The Death and Life of John Smith is like a cross between a) the old late '60s TV show Laugh In, with its non-stop sock-it-to-me sight gags and doors opening and slamming shut constantly, and b) something coldly existential and pensive, like No Exit or Waiting For Godot. The show even evokes medieval miracle plays, though grounded in absurdity. This fascinating work, which features some very fine acting, is playing at the Madison Street Theater for two more performances this weekend.

Although the play was previously performed as "readers theater" in a Chicago Dramatists' workshop, this is the first actual production. Apparently it's been germinating with playwright Dunne for quite a while. Director Rachel Edwards Harvith keeps the two-act comic drama moving swiftly, often amplifying scenes with crazy visuals, such as a small counter-like barrier where eight serpentine arms will suddenly, mysteriously reach out of assorted openings. It's bizarrely funny though I still don't understand how the actors belonging to those arms all squeezed into such a tiny area during a sudden, brief blackout.

The play begins with a man lying alone and barefoot in a strange, stark room. Where is he? How did he get here?

John Smith suddenly realizes he is accompanied by another person, an attractive woman in pearls named Gloria Smirnov. Smith can't seem to grasp he's now a dead man. Played by Eamon Gonzales and Kaycee Jordan, these two characters are not only both dead but in Hell. A devout Christian who seemed to be a rather drab, solitary type in life, Smith is shocked. Is he in Hell by mistake? Smith and Smirnov, it becomes clear, apparently shared a wild night he cannot quite recall.

Smirnov is seductive. She removes his black necktie to use as a sash to more tightly bind her black lace dress. What was their relationship before they died?

Smith explores his options. He can select The Alternative, meaning he can choose to go to heaven. But he soon learns that over 90-some percent of the arrivals choose to stay in Hell. What can this mean?

Mike Bender is impressive and outrageously funny playing a horned, devil-like character with a ventriloquist's dummy (also with horns). The dialogue between the two is a riot. We learn that hell is overpopulated with bankers and clergymen. Bender is one of those young performers whose career I'm certain we will hear about in the future. He's that good.

During a coffee break, while "The Girl From Ipanema" is playing, a metallic-looking waitress wears Mr. Smith's shoes and socks. What does this mean? The almost non-stop laughter makes us think about our own lives and the choices we make.

Smith and Smirnov are very confused. Was she in an auto wreck in her Buick Electra? Are they in love? Is love even possible in Hell? 

Most of the time this place is referred to as Hades East. There's no brimstone or flaming fire pits and at first no demons with pitchforks. But then bizarre characters begin to show up.

Many of the performers play multiple roles. Alison Nicols, David Ziebart, Annelese Ayers, and Nate Perez are impressive and add much to the plot.

This is all in fun and not vulgar or sacrilegious, but the content might be disturbing for younger viewers.

Christine Leinicke designed the towering three-piece set with a variety of windows and openings. One section swivels around to provide a courtroom. Leinicke also designed the costumes. The various weird creatures and characters are amazing to see.

Jeff Glass designed the lighting with assistance by Nicole Malmquist. Justin Glombicki, tech director, is behind the amazing sound design.

The Death and Life of John Smith by Will Dunne is an enjoyable and impressive new production that's great fun as well as highly thought-provoking. We're lucky to have such strong student shows as this one in our community.

Performances at Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison St., Oak Park, are Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18-19, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2 p.m. Tickets at CUCdeath.brownpapertickets.com.

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