Chicago Theater Review: BEYOND CARING (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 2, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


There are no miniaturized marvels, no surprises sprung from trap doors, no white rabbits from a hat. Beyond Caring bears none of Lookingglass Theatre Company’s vintage make-believe. In a major departure from the usual grand illusions, Chicago’s relentlessly undefinable troupe is currently exposing Gold Coast audiences to a reality as bleak and soul-shrinking as it is actual and representative.

In little over 90 minutes Alexander Zeldin’s naturalistic nightmare, a co-presentation with Dark Harbor Stories, slams us with the dead-end details of temp work in today’s “shadow economies.” Originally a 2013 offering at London’s Yard Theatre, this American transplant reinforces race as much as class as a factor in employee oppression. Its thrust is to convey the tedium of repetitive, unrewarding work—mopping floors, scrubbing walls, scouring conveyor belts, and operating a Zamboni-sized cleaning machine called “The Beast”—until the workers become machines as well.

Performing under Daniel Ostling’s pitiless fluorescent lighting and all over his utilitarian and generic industrial workplace (Lookingglass’s largest stage ever) are five subdued, as in broken, performers: Preparing for these parts, Caren Blackmore, J. Nicole Brooks, Keith D. Gallagher, Edwin Lee Gibson and Wendy Mateo steeped themselves in the miserable minutiae of “zero hour contracts” issued by faceless and unaccountable labor agencies. Poorly paid, fed and clothed, always auditioning for the next unproductive assignment, these marginal, non-union toilers are as essential as they are invisible.

But, of course, they’re not invisible in this painstaking production. Blackmore is beyond pity as arthritis-afflicted, 23-year-old Ebony-Grace. Even her dreams return her to this dreary job. This passive-aggressive survivor is befriended by temp veteran Phil (Gallagher), a depressed 50-year-old who will flee into the bathroom. His escapist solace is reading Tom Clancy novels during the too-brief factory breaks. Angry and horny, smoker Tracy (Brooks) can’t see her child and, seething to be noticed, will burst into a tantrum so visceral that only a rock-music riff can cover its rage. Glum, homeless, and undocumented, Latina factotum Sonia (Mateo) steals food to kill her hunger.

Then there’s the self-proclaimed white supervisor Ian (Gibson), detonating with capricious work orders, offering self-help bromides as manufactured motivation, delivering pop-up interrogations to gauge the temps’ work attitudes. Keeping them in wrenching uncertainty about work hours and overtime pay ($38.49 for an entire added shift), he’s mastered the über-corporate strategy of dividing and conquering. (His idea of fun, it seems, is to throw a staff party with the obligatory guests costumed as superheroes.)

Much of the (in)action here is subdued and sometimes inaudible, as if the characters sense in the audience eavesdropping bosses ready to deliver demerits. It feels that real. In the final mute tableau, the operatives are seen sweating in lockstep, assembly-line grunt work, silenced by their slog. There may be an exit but there’s no way out.

Not quite a call to arms like The Jungle, How The Other Half Lives, or Waiting for Lefty, Beyond Caring still challenges with its despairing or accusatory title. This is the daily grind for many former dreamers, young people afflicted with old souls. You could call this one-act a sardonic tribute to untold contemporary slaves. But, no, they’re not untold. Or even unfelt. That’s the ultimate triumph of Lookingglass’s very harsh mirror.

photos by Liz Lauren

Beyond Caring
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
ends on May 7, 2017
for tickets, call 312.337.0665 or visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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