In its second production of the 2023 theatrical season, Redtwist Theatre presents the biting dramatic play Babel by Jacqueline Goldfinger. It is the Chicago premier for the playwright, and what a premier it is.
Redtwist Theatre is a part of Chicago’s vitally important storefront theatre community. They’ve been doing quality work since 1994 under the name Actors Workshop Theatre. Having won seven Non-Equity Jeff Awards, Redtwist Theatre continues to grow on strong footing under the leadership of new artistic director Dusty Brown in Chicago’s historic Bryn Mawr district.
As a script, Babel has a lot going for it. It tackles questioning the ideals of when eugenics is appropriate for the betterment of society and when government interest in our bodies steps over the line.
The world in which Babel takes place is a dystopian society in the not-so-distant future. It has become law that all pregnancies are genetically tested to weed out potential problem children. Pregnancies that are deemed likely to produce positive personality characteristics that will move society forward are encouraged. When pregnancies occur that testing shows the potential for things like physical problems or mental illness, the parents are encouraged to end the pregnancy – quick and relatively painless. Then they can try again.
Children who are born uncertified, the pregnancies that are not doctor approved, are forced to live in a separate part of society. There they perform manual labor and follow strict rules. They are, for the most part, deemed forgotten.
Renee and Dani are two female partners who have blended their eggs and acquired a certified sperm donation to become parents. Renee worries about how their child will fare in the world, whether the child will be certified. Dani has a more black and white view of the world; the child will be fine because she says it will be fine – and Dani is never wrong.
Renee and Dani’s longtime friends Ann and Jamie are also pursuing pregnancy. They too worry about whether their child will be certified or not. It is, perhaps, the most dominant fear in this world’s society.
Across the board, the actors in Redtwist Theatre’s Babel do an incredible job. They have deeply detailed characters that both hide and confess emotions, fears, and hopes.
As Renee, Monique Marshaun is excellent. She shows the audience a wide range of emotions, giving her character a complete story arch. She shows us love, she shows us fear, and she shows us every emotion in between. I could watch Marshaun perform over and over and keep finding new elements to her character. She is extraordinary.
As Dani, Shannon Leigh Webber takes great pains to plant the seeds of a hidden condition that won’t be revealed until the end of the show. Webber never betrays the secrets of her character, letting them break through incrementally over time. Webber is a very strong actor.
Soleil Pérez is a true charmer as Ann. Like many of the other characters, Ann has hidden insecurities that she battles. There is a scene in which Ann engages in positive self-talk that has been perverted by their society into ritualistic behavior demands. Thanks to Pérez, it is one of the most powerful scenes in the play.
Redtwist ensemble member Michael Sherwin plays two characters in the play – Ann’s partner Jamie and a haunting version of a stork avatar trying to manipulate Renee in her parenting choices. Sherwin’s ability to make his characters distinctly different initially is very effective, but it is when he ties the two characters together later in the show that the audience gets the big payoff from his wonderful performance.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Redtwist Theatre has a small black box performance space. As such, the audience is practically in the laps of the cast. This kind of proximity can be daunting to actors and allows them no place to hide; anyone “phoning it in” would be quickly revealed. There is no such case here. All the actors are in character at all times and engage in some very moving performances.
Director Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary has done a remarkable job bringing this searing story to life in Redtwist’s intimate storefront performing space. She makes both bold and subtle choices, all of which are effective. The difference in walking and posture of characters when talking versus when moving between pods is an impressive directorial choice.
Carrasco-Prestinary is aided by assistant director Eileen Dixon, dramaturg Haley Willits, and fight and intimacy choreographer Gaby Labotka. Set design by Jonathan Berg-Einhorn is beautifully efficient. The set is visually interesting, yet nondescript enough to be the perfect setting for the impersonality of a dystopian society. Props and technical direction is by Jeff Brain, costumes are by Kathleen Gardin, sound design and original compositions are by Jake Sorgen, and Liz Patton serves as stage manager.
As a playwright, Goldfinger has some great ideas and clear talents in presenting them. The script isn’t perfect, but the areas for improvement are minimal. At times the characters engage in exchanging monologues to convey a lot of backstory. Communicating this information through back-and-forth dialogue might prove a little more organic. But that is a relatively minor issue. In its current state, the play is still highly recommended.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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