Back for its second season, Chicago Slam Works House Ensemble’s newest performance Handsome Animals raises the bar yet again. I recently had an opportunity to talk with the cast about the show after sitting in on a rehearsal.
From the opening line, this emotionally and philosophically charged performance engages its audience in a conversation about body image, gender roles and sexual equality. Digging into the darker moments of the casts’ lives, the pieces confront an unexpected vulnerability. “When we were finishing up the writing process, we were really remarking how dark a lot of the pieces were and that surprised us,” said cast member Shelley Elaine Geisler. To balance out the darker moments, the cast implements breaths of comedy that serve as a sort of “release valve” as Director J.W. Basilo put it. “Working as such a collaborative group,” Rashaad Hall added, “we can take a poem and put an amazing spin on it and make something dark, humorous.”
Each piece raises important questions pertaining to the way our society talks about body image and gender stereotypes. One poem entitled “Amazing” acts as a framework for redefining our sense of vanity. It pushes the audience toward realizing just how amazing the human anatomy is and how important a positive perception can be to our self-esteem. Another piece featuring Teagan Walsh-Davis and Samantha Dedian recalls the often overlooked realities surrounding the maturation of young girls and the objectification of their budding sexuality. In addition to these pieces, every scene seems to echo the questions raised while also posing solutions in a kind of existential call and response.
The cast takes on many different roles spanning a significant age range. Re-imagining the innocence of children and the sarcasm of young adults, the ensemble uses age as a vehicle for different modes of discussion. Variations in tone and style help drive these discussions in a dynamic performance that never stagnates on an issue. Selecting passages, themes and lines from all of the cast member’s writing (or Frankenstein-ing as they joked) allowed the pieces to incorporate each of their individual thoughts and ideas.
“This is the kind of show that’s going to hit a lot of people in very different ways,” said Walsh-Davis. The production is not only relevant to the social climate surrounding sex, gender, and body image but also stays true to the ideals and aims the ensemble set forth in previous productions such as Have a Great Summer and Redlined. The opening show is October 2 and will run for six consecutive Fridays at Stage 773. Attendance is strongly suggested; Handsome Animals is a battering ram knocking down the doors of inequality.