Smile Politely

Parkland’s Second Stage kicks off the theatre season with piercing drama

Live theatre is back in Champaign-Urbana and between Parkland College’s Second Stage production of Playing God and Krannert Center’s The 48, our community’s student-driven creativity is on full display and brimming over with dexterity and drive.

Parkland College’s Second Stage, a staple at the college since the theatre wing’s renovation in 2015, is an unadorned black box that lends itself to the kind of ingenuity on display in first-time playwright and director Felix Crim’s Playing God. As part of the Actors’ Studio series, Crim’s dark crime drama stars Central High School graduate Madelyn Henson as Detective Rachel Tines, and theatre major Spenser Hazen as Detective Aaron Platt. Both actors bring a strong presence to the monochromatic set, which adds to the depth of this stripped-down psychological thriller.

About his first time writing and directing, Crim was grateful to be “given the opportunity to not only direct a show I am passionate about but to direct a show I wrote. It has been a mind-blowing experience. I’ve gained so much knowledge from this experience for both my writing and directing skills. I didn’t have any theatre experience before Parkland, and I am beyond grateful. It’s still astonishing that other people enjoy what I write and have given me nothing but their all. While it’s been stressful, I wouldn’t change this experience for the world.”

The drama, set in a Chicago police department, tracks the serial murders of four young women. The detectives struggle to understand the overtly religious overtones of the killer’s method and motive.

At the play’s opening, center stage hanging on stark stage flats is a reproduction of the Renaissance artist Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. The painting, and indeed Caravaggio’s own murderous history, become another character in the play. Crim stated that Caravaggio’s Supper, as well as the other Caravaggio paintings exhibited at Chicago’s Art Institute, were an enormous influence on him. “The religious detail in those paintings is amazing. You can study them for hours and never come away with everything they have to tell you,” Crim stated. The paintings change over the course of the play and provide a stunning historical and physical backdrop to Crim’s contemporary drama.

Scene from Felix Crim's Playing God. Two detectives, one male and one female, stand at a Chicago Police Department podium on a stark stage. Photo by Bryan Heaton.

Photo by Bryan Heaton.

A little over halfway into the tightly woven story, third-year theatre major Alex Noa enters stage right as the gruesome suspect, Henry Taborer. Noa plays the accused serial killer with a deadpan creepiness reminiscent of killer John Doe in David Fincher’s Se7en. Crim is clearly a student of psychological thrillers like 1995’s Se7en and Spike Lee’s 1999 Summer of Sam. The script is a taut 40-minutes but included just enough character development to round out this multidimensional play.

The four ensemble characters, played by Liana Reichlin, Kiah Johnson, Mariah Smith, and Maya Baker, provide the play’s most haunting moment. They inhabit the grotesque tableaux of the killer’s art: the four young victims were murdered and arranged to replicate Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. The silent tableaux invite the audience to revere the arrangement with admiration and disgust. Careful lighting by Nicholas Shaw, makeup by Bailey Mills, and the costume work of veteran Sheri Doyle provide the perfect extension to the scene that captures all the suspense and trauma of serial murder.

Scene from Felix Crim's Playing God. A female detective interrogates a male suspect, looking smug in an argyle sweater. The male detective looks on, inquisitively. Photo by Bryan Heaton.

Photo by Bryan Heaton.

The haunting pre-show music and eerie soundtrack, which punctuated the set pieces and scene changes, chosen by Crim and incorporated into sound designer Maggie O’Brien’s dazzling work, added a fourth and rich dimension to this ghostly tableaux.

Parkland College’s Actors’ Studio series, Theatre Director Brian Morgan notes, “is an expansion and revision of Parkland’s annual student production. In most seasons we provide two completely student-driven productions to help bolster our acting and technical programs with real experience beyond the classroom. Students are mentored through the process by faculty and guest artists. All ticket sales and donations for these events go into a student fund to maintain these experiences and to fund student awards.”

Whether Champaign-Urbana’s students are learning skills at our local high schools, in our local theatre organizations including the Station Theatre and the Penny Dreadful Players, at Parkland College, or at the University of Illinois, a vibrant community theatre that gives student writers, directors, actors, stage managers, and designers the time and space to learn the craft and to engage creativity as an embodied art is vital to the backbone of our community.

Parkland College’s Actors’ Studio Series: Playing God
September 30, October 1-3
Parkland College Second Stage Theatre
2400 W Bradley Ave, Champaign

Coming Next to Second Stage Theatre: She Kills Monsters

Top photo by Bryan Heaton

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