Inside Windy City Playhouse's Southern Gothic
A distinctive and compelling theater experience has become the talk of the town
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SINCE opening its theater doors in March 2015, Windy City Playhouse has gained a reputation as an innovator in Chicago theater. And with its new production of Southern Gothic, extended through May 27, it has taken a giant step forward to enhance that reputation.
Until now, Windy City Playhouse has been known to drastically change its theater seating from production to production to prevent restrictions related to the creation of a set and to give audience members placement that produces the optimal viewing experience. All of that has been surpassed by the “immersive theater” concept that allows the audience to be actual “invisible” guests at the Southern Gothic party, getting inside the action but not being a part of it at all. More precisely, there is no separation between audience and actors.
In this play directed by David H. Bell and taken from a script by Leslie Liautaud, there is no traditional seating. In fact, the seats have been taken out and the entire theater has been turned into a house with a living room, dining room, bathroom, a kitchen, and a back porch with hedges and vines. Although observers are 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 and consume as much of the action as possible.
Set in Ashford, Georgia, in 1961, the 90-minute show with no intermission takes place in the home of Beau and Ellie Coutier (Michael McKeough and Sarah Grant), who are hosting a party for Ellie’s sister-in-law’s 40th birthday. From the time that the honoree, Suzanne Wellington (Brianna Borger), and her husband Jackson (Paul Fagen) arrive, she turns out to be somewhat difficult at the celebration that includes devious politician Charles (Brian McCaskill) and his wife Lauren Lyon (Christine Mayland Perkins), columnist Cassie Smith (Ariel Richardson) and Tucker Alsworth (Peter Ash). 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.”
Because the action takes place in a confined area with eight actors, only 28 people are allowed to experience the performance each night, causing many of the shows to be sold out, leading to the first extension through May 27.
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.”
Although Southern Gothic veers 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 is said to have launched the immersive theater trend. In that production, every room in the multiple-floor “playspace” was the set.
As Southern Gothic evidences, experiential theater is more common now and offers different experiences from one production to another. For some attendees, though, in the case of Southern Gothic, the physical layout may not allow you to see absolutely everything that goes on, but perhaps the fact that you can enjoy the snacks and alcoholic beverages that are prominent on the show’s set will make up for missing some of the action.
For more information and tickets to Southern Gothic, go to www.windycityplayhouse.com. Ticket prices are as follows: Tuesdays 7:30 p.m., tickets start at $65; Wednesdays 7:30 p.m., tickets start at $80; Thursdays 7:30 p.m., tickets start at $90; Fridays 8 p.m., tickets start at $100; Saturdays 4 p.m., tickets start at $100; Saturdays 8 p.m., tickets start at $100; Sundays 2 p.m., tickets start at $90; Sundays 6 p.m., tickets start at $80.
The birthday party in the Windy City Playhouse production of Southern Gothic is the focal point of the immersive play.
Attendees at the play are encouraged to move throughout the set to view as much of the action as possible, which ranges from the obvious to the clandestine.