'Methtacular!' funny, fascinating, smartly filmed

Artbeat

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By Doug Deuchler

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The theater community has been hit hard by coronavirus. Theaters have been closed and many shows have been cancelled due to new regulations about social distancing. I was uplifted to learn 16th Street Theater was about to open "Methtacular!" virtually to comply with current rulings prohibiting gathering in place.

I found it's really quite easy to stream this show at home. You simply buy one ticket per watcher for a set date and time. Such streaming tickets cost $12 each -- $10 dollars for "admission" plus a $2 ticket fee. 

One hour before show time, a ticket holder receives an email with a curtain speech introduction and a link with a password to view the production through Vimeo before midnight (Eastern). And, audience talk-backs will occur virtually on Thursday and Friday nights after the play, consistent with the live theater experience at 16th Street. 

In this autobiographical show, Steven Strafford is both the playwright and the sole performer. He is a compelling, skillful storyteller with a great gift for comedy. One might think an early life of drug addiction might be depressing material, but he heightens his story with lots of humor. 

The play focuses on the early 2000s, when Strafford was a shy young gay man living in Chicago, developing a serious crystal meth addiction. Much of his tale is hilarious; many episodes are also harrowing. Amazingly and remarkably, he survived to share his story with us.

Director Adam Fitzgerald varies the pace and intensity, highlighting the humor while also underscoring the intensity of the topic.

Now in their 13th season, 16th Street Theater often premieres new works. But this production is one that has enjoyed successful runs at other companies. In fact, this streaming edition was filmed at Steppenwolf's 1700 Theatre. 

With that company's permission, this funny and fascinating performance is presented via a very smartly filmed version. It is not simply a straightforward video of some guy doing an extensive monologue. It is clearly a multi-camera shoot, with top-notch editing and production values.

Strafford has a strong singing voice and provides some nice cabaret-style numbers which underscore events in his storyline. A torch song, "Bring Down the House of Pain," was particularly memorable.

We do not exactly learn how the young actor descended into such total meth addiction. But it's all there -- his euphoria when he's high, his wild, empty sex at North Side gay bath houses like "Man's Country," his drug-dealer boyfriend, his lying and denial, episodes of thievery and even brutal violence. 

While some of this may sound horribly grim, Strafford has such charm and wit he comes off as a truly gifted stand-up comic. We encounter little of the true pain and horror of meth addiction.

Most of his addiction occurs while he is developing a significant career in Chicago theater, appearing in such big shows as "Spamalot."

At times a video screen in the background shows us Stafford's mother, a woman who is distraught about her son's challenges, but is not geographically close enough to come to his assistance. She wants him to return home and stay with her.

The opening is a take-off on those big old TV specials in which someone like Nell Carter or Ann-Margret would introduce the whole show. Television provides other inspiration, such as a funny episode that's a game show. Several audience participants briefly play contestants on "What's My Meth?"

"Methtacular!" ends on an upbeat note but perhaps Steven's recovery is too quick, not developed enough. He overcomes his addiction and marries a nice man. But the finale leaves you laughing; this is not some preachy junior high counseling movie. Strafford leaves us wanting more, motivating us to think further about the issues and horrors of meth addiction.

The original music is by William TN Hall and Wade Elkins. Hall is also the piano player. The original video design is by Aaron Rhyne

 

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