A New Look At Southern Gothic
Innovative presentation is a real winner with theatergoers who embrace a first-time experience
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ON the heels of Windy City Playhouse’s very successful and innovative track record at its flagship venue on Irving Park Road, the theater’s leaders have expanded the theater’s reach with a new, flourishing facility that offers the best for theatergoers who travel to or live in the South Loop.
Located in the historic Motor Row district of the South Loop, Windy City Playhouse South opened in January at 2229 S. Michigan Avenue and quickly hit its stride, immediately establishing itself as a viable option for theatergoers with its first production, the much celebrated Southern Gothic, which offers a distinctive and compelling theater experience that has become the talk of the town and beyond.
Now that Southern Gothic has moved to Windy City Playhouse South and scheduled to run through March 31, it exposes more people to the “immersive theater” concept that was so popular during its original run that Southern Gothic had to be extended multiple times to accommodate demand. The general appeal of the “immersive” trend lies in the audience’s close proximity to the set and the actors. More precisely, there’s no separation between audience and actors, but attendees are considered “invisible” guests at the Southern Gothic party, getting up close and personal to the action but not being a part of it. Since observers are “invisible” guests at the party, there is no interaction between performer and the viewer, who is allowed to go from room to room to observe the developing action that unfolds in all areas. Benches are available along the perimeter for those who want to sit, but it’s recommended by those who have experienced this unique offering to roam the different areas to consume as much of the action as possible.
In Southern Gothic, Sarah Grant and Michael McKeogh are the hosts of a raucous birthday party where some bombshell secrets are revealed.
Suzanne Wellington (Amy Malcom), the party's honoree, has a big personality and shares a moment with Grant, while her husband (below, left), Jackson Wellington (played by Paul Fagen), chats with politician Charles Lyon (played by Victor Holstein).
Written by Leslie Liautaud and directed by David H. Bell, Southern Gothic is set in Ashford, Georgia, and a small group of guests are invited to the home of Beau and Ellie Coutier (Michael McKeogh and Sarah Grant), who are hosting a party for Ellie’s sister-in-law’s 40th birthday on June 30, 1961. From the minute that the honoree, Suzanne Wellington (Amy Malcom), and her husband Jackson (Paul Fagen) arrive, she turns out to be a handful at the celebration that includes devious politician Charles (Victor Holstein) and his wife Lauren Lyon (Erin Barlow), society columnist Cassie Smith (Arielle Leverett) and Tucker Alsworth (Ben Page). As the night goes on and the party heats up, secrets start to emerge among the guests and the gathering turns into “a big hurricane of juiciness.”
So with the production spread out in different rooms, what about the possibility of missing content that affects the play’s continuity? “Different conversations happen in different rooms at the same time. You have to focus on what’s going on in the room you’re in, but you’ll hear things going on in other rooms,” says Amy Rubenstein, artistic director at Windy City Playhouse and co-creator of Southern Gothic. “The play is written in a way that allows you to get the entire arc of the play and understand what it’s about, but you might not get all of the subplot. You’ll understand the whole play, and you’ll never walk away feeling that you didn’t know what happened, but you might miss someone making out in the kitchen.”
The “fly on the wall” viewing concept gives theatergoers the sense of eavesdropping on the action or perhaps getting an extended sneak peek without getting caught. But it also highlights the professionalism and incredible focus of the actors, who proceed flawlessly despite the close proximity of the audience and the frequent movement by attendees as they try to get better views of all that is happening throughout the house.
Although Southern Gothic deviates from theater tradition, there have been other immersive productions, perhaps one of the more famous being New York’s Sleep No More, which opened in 2011 and launched the immersive theater trend.
Today, though, Southern Gothic has taken hold of that entertaining trend and put its own signature on it. It’s a process in which everyone is on the front row, with the opportunity to absorb more from a play than ever before. And in Southern Gothic, there’s a lot to absorb. In reference to the chaos and turbulence that characterize this frantic party, Beau Coutier says simply, “It’s definitely a night to remember!”
Photographs by Michael Brosilow
For more information and tickets, go to www.windycityplayhouse.com.