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Theater Review:

"HIGH LIFE," Shattered Globe Theatre at Victory Gardens Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

One’s initial impression of Canadian playwright Lee MacDougall’s bleakly riotous satire, "High Life," may be akin to a parade of raw character studies of the sordid underbelly roles into which many actors love to sink their teeth. But, by the second act, the play crescendos to a soulful yet sardonic rhapsody embodying human frailty and futility. And, despite the violent humor MacDougall applies to four morphine addicts’ ludicrous bank-heist plot, "High Life" takes a surprisingly sensitive look at anyone’s capacity for descending into a desperate, dead-end existence.

It’s that first, superficial sensation, which unconsciously mirrors the smug disdain most people would have for these groveling "low lifes." Yet what sets MacDougall’s script apart from a gratuitous theatrical voyeurism into the world of the sickest of social reprobates is its economical ability to endow these characters with a degree of clumsy virtue – as misguided as their "moral" code may be.

Shattered Globe Theatre – presenting the Midwest premiere of "High Life" at Victory Gardens Theater – is an ideal match for the work’s grizzled and luminous irony. An all-male cast directed by the incomparable Dado (a woman, not unlike Next Theatre’s Kate Buckley, who is strikingly adept at eliciting multifarious elements of the male psyche from her actors) fluidly navigates the script’s blistering horrors and "Three Stooges"-like head-knocking.

The Canada-set play is neatly divided into the set-up and the robbery gone terribly wrong. Ringleader Dick, who deludes his counselors into believing he’s clean, gathers together two ex-cons and recently released prison buddies – volcanically volatile killer Bug and the feeble Donnie, whose corpse-like body is racked by excessive substance abuse -- to help execute his paradoxically dubbed "perfect plan." Dick originally gets the idea from petty criminal Donnie, who unobtrusively steals purses from ladies who volunteer at church events, then uses their ATM cards to get cash for more drugs. Donnie admits that he at least returns the purses.

Dick intends to have Donnie steal more cards and draw out $600 from an ATM machine. Then he turns over the scheme to pretty-boy hustler Billy (a cocky young addict Dick has recruited from the rehab center) to "innocently" go into the bank and ingratiate himself to one of the women tellers. Billy then is supposed to deliver a convincing monologue about how he only needed $60 but got $600 from the ATM by mistake. His honesty is meant to touch the teller. She would then proceed to immediately call an ATM repair company.

The four guys then stake out the bank in a car and wait for the repairmen, whom they intend to ambush and force to give them all the money inside the ATM. Almost the entire second act is set inside the car, where a vicious rivalry intensifies between Bug and Billy – each threatening to kill each other. Billy, who has never done time, is regarded as an expendable outsider. His cocksure demeanor, and sly scheme to break these cons’ steadfast code, leads to a pivotal eruption of rage-filled "honor."

One of the most clever-comedic moments occurs (and serves to illustrate Billy’s true outsider status) when, during the chronic Billy-Bug bickering, Donnie quips that Bug’s "just mad ‘cause you [Billy] got that date with that woman in the bank." Billy enthuses, "Touché!"; whereupon Donnie confusedly asks what "Touché" means. "It’s French for touchy," responds Billy. This statement suggests the condescending way uncomfortable social issues in general are treated at the same time it mirrors how easily these men take psychotic-level offense at the silliest jab.

The playwright also reveals the absurdity of a justice system that makes a less strenuous life in prison (where drugs and excellent healthcare are readily available) a lot more tempting than a brutal life on the streets.

Each actor delivers committed and edgy psyche-revealing individual portrayals, which fearlessly coalesce during the brilliant second-act non-heist sequence. Andrew Rothenberg, a chameleon actor so gaunt and pale as Donnie, appears a quite literal dead man walking. Yet Rothenberg, the most nuanced actor in the cast, never allows Donnie to be whiny or self-pitying. In fact, his character uses his innocent-tinged wits to survive, making him perhaps the most alive. Tony Verville – a smug, come-hither-smile permanently plastered on his face -- is perfectly cast as the fresh-faced Billy undone by his own boastful charms.

Shattered Globe stalwarts Joe Forbrich as the immovable, brick-postured Bug and Brian Pudil as the swaggeringly delusional Dick keep their potentially caricatured roles real and multifaceted.

At first Kevin Hagan’s arid kitchen-sink-style set, which seems to exist in an antiseptic abyss, struck me as coldly incongruous. But, as the play progressed, this rather nondescript and sterile apartment that’s part of Dick’s drug-rehab arrangements, had the power to make an unbearable blandness seep into the audience’s bones – giving us all a small taste of what it must be like to live in a void of unquenchable neediness and meaningless co-dependency.

Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of "High Life" runs through May 26 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $22. Call 773-871-3000 or log onto www.victorygardens.org.

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