By Patrick O’Brien
Regardez: Michael John LaChiusa, the one-man musical theatre tornado, who managed to have two new shows mounted on Broadway in the 1999-2000 season; no small feat. The latter effort, the Jazz Age Wild Party, is still done regularly; less so the former: the equally wild, equally uncompromising Marie Christine. A Google search suggests that between Broadway 1999, and Chicago 2017, its showings can be counted on one hand. LaChiusa could only offer as an explanation in a Washington Post article five years after Broadway: “There was no way, shape or form that one could have ever done eight performances a week of Marie Christine.”
Director Lili-Anne Brown, no stranger to LaChiusa, huddled with BoHo Theatre, and they declared “OK, we’ll do four shows a week.”
So, much like that Broadway season, Chicago itself has had the rare chance for two LaChiusas in close succession (His jaggedly cool Little Fish is reviewed here.) And, considering the results on display here, it almost seems inconceivable that anyone could ever have overlooked Mamzell Marie.
Marie Christine is indeed a huge and intensely difficult piece, as the close confines of Theatre Wit make all the more apparent. And its lead is certainly impossible to ignore when she is thrown at our feet at the very top — Kyrie Courter’s placid acceptance of a death sentence with no trial for an unspeakable crime masks a rage for the millennia, and a voice that must be heeded. She is versed in the wondrous and terrifying crafts of voodoo and magic, but somewhat emotionally stunted by her two N’Awlins society brothers, who wish she’d drop her deceased priestess mother’s work, marry well, and start paying heed to the white half of her Creole heritage. She falls hard for the brash and dashing Dante (Ken Singleton), a stranded Chicago sailor, and nothing — including murder — will come between them.
Except when she learns the hard way that sailors tend to drift from port to port…
The musical — chamber opera, really, in terms of scope, mood and range — is not a drifter. It’s a must for those who prefer their scores brisk and hefty, for LaChiusa waits for no one, constantly racing, shifting, clashing and even interrupting himself. And certainly don’t wait up for light; those who know their Euripedes know what became of Marie’s predecessor, Medea, the original woman scorned. (Aaron Benham, another LaChiusa pro, makes his smallish band sound worthy of a Greek epic.)
It’s a must for anyone who enjoys having some of Chicago’s finest singing actors under one roof, as pieces of this scope demand. If Courter and Singleton haven’t worked their magic, then perhaps Neala Barron as the saloon madam and Marie’s unlikely ally? Pavi Proczko as a city boss? Emily Goldberg, Teressa LaGamba, and Nicole Michelle Haskins alone comprise the omnipresent women’s ensemble, Marie’s “witnesses.”
It’s a must for anyone who loves to see consistently assured and simply “theatrical” direction at work. That is, the sort of invention where a knot in a ribbon casts a spell of death; and four low-hanging lamps are all it takes to set the scene in fin de siècle Chicago, a city at once intensely modern and suffocating.
It’s storefront theatre firing on all cylinders. It’s a rare score getting the outing of its (second) life. It’s an ever-necessary reminder that, justified or not, the actions of “monsters” don’t not have reasons.
It’s getting wet and cold, Chicago; Marie Christine’s got just the fire for you.
BoHo Theare presents “Marie Christine” through December 10 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.