By Ian Rigg
WAKE UP, NEO. THE DEN THEATRE HAS YOU.
Audiences can now plug in at Wicker Park’s own Zion for The One: The Matrix Parody Musical, a cybernetic comedy that proves a real hoot and holler parody program for cult theatre fans.
A brief plot recap for those who took the blue pill after the 20-year old surprise blockbuster: in a digitally dystopian world where machines have overthrown humanity and enslave them as bioelectrical batteries while imprisoning their pacified minds inside a computer simulation, one man must become the One – embracing his destiny as computerized Christ while wearing copious amounts of black sunglasses, long leather coats, and zero facial expressions. Whoa.
Playwright and Architect Laura Marsh cracks a keyboard like the best hacker. There’s well-crafted parody to be had here, cleverly referencing and remixing the source material with transcendentally silly humor and 90s nostalgia to entertaining effect. While certain jokes and asides to the sequels will be most funny to diehard followers of the Wachowski sisters, people only cursorily aware of the 1999 mega-hit will enjoy the romp, too. Marsh and her collaborators were wise to choose this as the premise, hacking into the zeitgeist at the right time: we’re smack-dab in the middle of the Reeves-a-ssaince, after all. Keanu is a universally-beloved walking meme, and the show mines references to his expansive career to great effect (hold out for the perfectly timed John Wick joke), while also riffing on the general internet (the incel/redpill joke is A+)
Everyone clearly had a blast putting up the show. It’s a lovingly glib tribute with a true D.I.Y. spirit, created by fans, for fans. Under the direction of C.J. Tuor, the production excels at turning limitations into advantages. The evil machine Sentinel becomes a hysterical puppet. Characters simultaneously fighting in the Matrix and inert in the real world are represented with mannequins. And the laws of physics be damned, the movie’s most iconic action scenes are recreated with household means, to utterly riotous effect.
The ad-hoc antics are supplemented by lighting and set designer Sam Begich, whose simple but convertible approach gives a real sense of ambience to the deliberately ramshackle feel of the musical.
Music director & composer Jon Monteverde makes good use of a tracked orchestration, at once home in the 90s pop (the show opens with a sort of Ricky Martin-esque bop) and even grunge rock scenes, with plenty of traditional musical theatre in between.
You came to The Matrix Musical to have a good time to distract from the growing mistrust of the phone in your pocket, and that’s what the cast gives you.
With lots to do and remember in the wordy Wachowski nonsense, the performers give it their all: the combined tomfoolery of ensemble Liz Anderson, Sean Buckley, and Andreas Tsironis is mighty fun, all with plenty of parts to steal the scene. Tyler DeLoatch makes a magnificent and mysterious Morpheus, Bruce Phillips makes a delightfully deadpan digital diablo as Agent Smith, Amanda Noelle Neal outputs one of the show’s best songs as the Oracle, Mike Gospel turns a traitor into a sniveling men’s rights activist as Cipher, Sean Rickert’s physicality is a thing to behold as bro turned hero, Neo, and Bri Fitzpatrick soars as the effortlessly cool Trinity, bringing dimensional shades to a parody role to the point where one thinks she should be the protagonist of the trilogy.
But the true star of the show might be choreographer Sheena Laird, recreating the reality-breaking fights to break the audience with laughter – seriously, the creativity behind staging the groundbreaking special effects as a tongue-in-cheek, zero-budget blackbox approach is worth the price of admission alone.
The One’s programming is primarily admirable, but there are a few glitchy segments and bugs that could use a little recoding, and (were it not to give the athletic actors a well-earned break) the show may be better served as a one act. But that’s no indictment: the production doesn’t go astray like the third film in the trilogy, and the many true laughs land as well as the bullet-time punches and kicks. There are several outright belly-busters in this machine-fighting madness.
With a good binary of wit and silliness, and a whole lot of reality-defying ingenuity, The One: The Matrix Parody Musical is an overall enjoyable late-night cult comedy gem – maybe your own Nebuchadnezzar crew can share a drink (or a red pill) beforehand as you put down the machines for a fun night at the theatre.
The Den Theatre presents “The One: The Matrix Parody Musical,” through August 25 at 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. For tickets and more information visit here.