Downward Dreaming

Courtesy of Dream Theatre

It seems, at first, grossly unjust that such a trivializing description as “Pilsen’s most hipsterrific play in years” should accompany Chicago’s Dream Theatre Company’s new production “Downward Facing.” The word “hipster,” long associated with adolescent indulgence, seems incongruous with the Dream Theatre Company, which certainly lacks the apathy hipsters are notorious for. Indeed, since its birth in 1998, the theater has performed everywhere from New York to Chicago, and even as far off as Russia. “Downward Facing” is, admittedly, hipster in that it is about progressive lesbians and a misanthropic squatter, but the consideration and intelligence with which the writer, Mishelle Apalategui, explores the interactions between her characters is far removed from the excessive stylization that the term “hipster” implies. Yet perhaps we should focus on the second half of “hipsterrific”:  “terrific” is the only word that can describe the quality acting of the play’s five-person cast.

“It was kind of hard in the beginning,” said Natalie Breitmeyer who plays the quick-witted photographer who falls in love with a wide-eyed redhead at a bus stop. “As two straight girls we had to try and portray a relationship that we couldn’t fully understand.” The director Giau Truong, however, helped them understand, talking away their discomfort. “During rehearsal, any time an actor felt like they weren’t sure why they were doing what they were doing, or thought they couldn’t decide how their character would react to a situation, we would stop and discuss,” he said. “We would create a back story for the characters, understand their relationships with each other, and make them more real.”

Indeed it is this startling reality which glitters through the simple interactions between Jenna, Janet, Dasher, Flax and Lilianne, that makes the play so charming and empathetic. All the characters in the two parallel stories are desperate to remain stoic. The gentleness with which Apalategui makes transparent this forced stoicism, revealing the people underneath struggling to battle life, gives the characters a nuanced subtlety reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s plays. “Maybe the ideas are a bit like Tennessee Williams’s,” said Apalategui. “Although stylistically I think I was probably more influenced by Beckett.” Some aspects of “Downward Facing” definitely do cry loudly of a Beckettian influence. For instance, the fragmentation and idiosyncrasy of each character’s mode of speech may appear jarring at the beginning, but is kept so consistent that as the play progresses, it becomes perfectly natural. Breitmeyer, in fact, dives so deep into the uncomfortable tension that these different forms of communication cause, that after the show she says, “it takes me about an hour to stop being awkward.”

“Downward Facing” was originally only a ten-minute scene, written by Apaletegui in five hours for the Theater for Women festival. “We were given four mugshots of our actresses and notes saying what roles they hadn’t played yet but would like to and then were sent off to write. The notes all said things like ‘I’d like to play a villain’ Or ‘I’d like to play someone sexy’. I just ignored most of that and wrote about ordinary people and their interactions.” The set is simple, the audience is involved–the actors appeal to them directly (in accordance with the Dream Theatre Company’s tradition)–the space is intimate, and the interactions infinitely complex. Perhaps “Downward Facing” is not Pilsen’s most hipsterrific play in years–but it definitely is terrific.

Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th St. Through February 20. $15-18. (773)552-8616. dreamtheatrecompany.com