Borealis House Theatre of Chicago

Aug 30th - Oct 21st.  BOREALIS: Part mythic journey, part workplace satire, the play is a darkly comic adventure about family obligation, career aspiration, and what we leave behind to make our way to the top.

Box office for more information - 773.769.3832


August 30th - October 21st


As House Theatre adventures go, 'Borealis' is a non-starter - Chris Jones 9/11/18. "In its 17-year history - and, for the record, I've seen every show - the courageous House Theatre of Chicago has trafficked almost entirely in new work, often with an emphasis on quest-based mythic storytelling, one of its long-held if high-risk passions. In many instances, the results have been spectacular.

And then there have been unfortunate shows like "Borealis."

This new piece - which has a progressive heart and some moments of genuine creative interest but evidences a script that needed a lot more development - is, to put it bluntly, not yet worth tickets between $30 and $50. I'm not talking here about nuances or nips or tucks but the kind of wholesale issues with plotting that perplex an audience. The show is staged with an audience on two sides, and I spent much of Sunday night staring across at earnest but frowning faces.  As penned by Bennett Fisher and directed by Monty Cole, "Borealis" begins with a scene between an orphaned 13-year-old girl, Cozbi (Tia Pinson) and her beloved brother Absalom (Desmond Gray). Absalom, we learn, works on an isolated oil rig for a big corporation. Since the number of plays offering up sympathetic treatments of mercurial Big Oil is pretty much zero, we rapidly intuit that this will not be good for either Absalom or Cozbi.
When Absalom disappears in mysterious circumstances, Cozbi find herself in a kind of dystopian wonderland of corporate malfeasance, forced to dance from one absurd security professional to another, many of whom are costumed by Izumi Inaba with an eye to superhero movies.


That signals anti-capitalist melodrama and I, for one, can spend a fun night cheering on a brave teen heroine in the face of fascistic commodity exploiters or any other villains of our precious and precarious habitat. It doesn't have to be realistic in any binary sense of that word; we'll believe all kinds of things in fantastical landscapes, especially one realized with such techno pizazz by designer Eleanor Kahn. But the driving force of such narratives has to be to excite the soul, to pump the activist blood, to get the heart raging with recognition and desire.


"Borealis" simply does not intensify or complicate as it goes - there are long digressive stretches that will have you looking at the ceiling, or counting the minutes left in the running time. It's not all that way: the first scene between the two siblings is so promising, and so warmly staged by Cole, that I settled happily (and emotionally engaged) into my seat. But the thread just dissipates as the visual canvas expands. There is little to drive us forward in anything that might feel like real time.


Part of the problem here, I think, is that Fisher has so intense an anti-corporate satiric impulse that he allows that spoofery to overwhelm his narrative arc, and, as any fan of "Game of Thrones" or "Black Panther" will tell you, old-fashioned suspense is a crucial hallmark of the heroic genre, however it may seem to have changed. Unfortunately, this is compounded by Fisher going after such easy and familiar targets here: Lampooning oil-rig security flunkies, HR professionals and mercurial industrial leaders isn't fresh or counterintuitive or even difficult enough to sustain the show. I understand there are metaphoric progressive themes in play here, and the show might work if it were uproariously funny on some kind of deep-state level, or even more politically radical, but both of those more desirable outcomes would require much more defined rules of engagement than you'll find in this script.


Cole and his House actors throw a lot in the air to try to make it work. Alas, the dominant scenic element is a chained platform that rises and falls from the ceiling - so agonizingly slowly that I wondered if this was some kind of meta-theater of cruelty. You wait and watch as it comes down. And you sit and watch as it goes up. Having not done much at the bottom.


Meanwhile, whatever tension the show has built flies right out the roof."

House Theatre's Borealis doesn't quite light up the sky - Tony Adler, Chicago Reader 9/11/18. - "Borealis is everything we've come to expect a House Theatre of Chicago show to be: Good-hearted, winsome, fantastical, funny, clever, sweetly indignant, charmingly messy, and just dark enough before the dawn. It adopts the crowd-pleasing idioms established by shows like the ensemble's annual Nutcracker and carried through in last winter's Hatfield & McCoy, which somehow managed to be delightful despite all the carnage it chronicled. But Borealis's energetic House-yness may be its biggest problem. The new play by Bennett Fisher spends so much time being all you expect that it gives short shrift to what it's saying.

Fisher's script introduces us to rambunctious 13-year-old Cozbi (pronounced with a long o, I guess to distinguish her from a certain prominent sex offender), who lives with her grown brother, Absalom, in the tiny central Alaskan village of Minto. Mom and Dad are "gone," we don't know why or how, though the when appears to be a matter of years-long enough, anyway, for the siblings to have developed a joshingly violent way with each other. In the first scene Absalom (the charismatic Desmond Gray) gets ambushed by Tia Pinson's Cozbi as he puts on his snow gear; they assume D & D-style personas (Absalom: "I AM ARMORED IN DRAGON SCALES! POSSESSED WITH THE POWER OF FLIGHT! GIRDED WITH A THOUSAND GRASPING ARMS AND A SWIRLING, SLITHERY TAIL!") and play-brawl. Really hard. With a prodigious amount of scatological talk.


This being the near future-"[s]ooner than you think, according to the stage directions-Fisher assumes that the U.S. government has opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to unrestrained oil drilling. There are thousands of rigs out there in the ANWR, and Absalom works on one of them, doing two-week shifts away from home. Cozbi wants him to quit so they can head for the bayou, where she pictures herself eating real peaches and starting "some shit with an alligator." To her astonishment, he agrees. As he leaves for his shift, Absalom promises to give his notice as soon as he reaches the oil company's massive corporate complex.


Three months later Absalom still hasn't returned. Instead, Cozbi receives a heavily redacted letter from him that sounds to her like a tattered plea for help. And she resolves to answer it. Making the long and trackless journey to the ANWR is only the start of her quest. (To give you an idea just how long and trackless that is in real life: When I tried googling a car route from Minto to the ANWR, the program responded, "Sorry, your search appears to be outside our current coverage area for driving.") The real trek starts when she arrives at the complex, armed only with her ax, her indomitable will, and a mystic codex of corporate-speak titled The Art of the Seven Habits of Lean In and Influence People.


All of the above is vividly imagined, in a gamer's universe sort of way. Cozbi wrests the codex, for instance, from a disfigured hermit named Titus whose weaknesses (loves cigarettes, hates fire) she exploits to her advantage. Her journey toward Absalom is punctuated by confrontations with ascending levels of corporate "asshats," each of which has to be fought through or finessed in the classic manner-and each of which gets its own eccentric look and powers, thanks to director Monty Cole and costume designer Izumi Inaba. Borealis features plenty of whimsically differentiated adversaries, along with some surprising secret weapons. And, of course, it manifests every one of those famous House virtues.


Still, the point of the two-hour odyssey remains murky, if not for Cozbi then for me. Fisher goes to great pains to set up what looks like an ecological cautionary tale about an industrial behemoth despoiling the wilderness, and then fails to follow through on it: the pipelines and rigs serve as little more than a field of play for our heroine to negotiate on her way to her goal. Another ostensible subject is the dehumanizing nature of corporate culture, but Fisher doesn't have anything all that remarkable to say about that beyond (a) lampooning its well-known excesses and (b) dressing those excesses up in fantasy-fiction iconography.


The ultimate point, as far as I can tell, is the one arrived at by Cozbi yet never fully mastered by the play: That adults are liars and hypocrites who make the world worse by making peace with it as it is and betraying the imaginative child inside them.


True enough as far as it goes. But inasmuch as the final-really, the only-say on the matter belongs to a 13-year-old, any potential richness is lost. Borealis remains a game with lots of cool bits: a charming mess. v


Failure to Launch: A Review of Borealis at The House Theatre of Chicago - Emma Coulingm, NewCity Chicago 9/10/18. - "In "Borealis," the season opener at The House Theatre of Chicago, an ominous letter arrives in an otherworldly Alaska setting to thirteen-year-old Cozbi on a surrealistic adventure to rescue her brother from the depths of an oil corporation. It checks all the boxes of a show from The House: puppetry, mythos, adventure, spectacle and a real message at the heart of the thing. But like many recent shows from this company, it doesn't hit the mark.
As Cozbi, up-and-coming actor Tia Pinson is thrilling to watch, deftly navigating the imaginative set design (Eleanor Kahn) and guiding us along every step of this labyrinthine story. She's supported by a wonderful ensemble, in particular a shining and energetic Karissa Murrell Myers as the only office worker who helps Cozbi on her journey, a classic villain performance from the ever-impressive McKenzie Chinn, and Desmond Gray in a heartbreaking portrayal of Cozbi's brother.


The signature of director Monty Cole is present throughout; the same elements that have led to his meteoric rise as one of the most exciting new directors in Chicago are all present in this new play. There's the personal touch and keen understanding of sibling relationships that was so powerful in his "Hamlet" at The Gift, and the same creativity and boldness that made his "Hairy Ape" a sensation at Oracle Theatre. But something about this production feels as though his vision and remarkable talent were somehow leashed.


What's missing in "Borealis" is a sense of cohesion and structure and that comes down to an underdeveloped script. The fantastical elements are not grounded in risk or stakes, the characters are not fully formed, the structure of the story is messy and confusing, even the jokes fall flat (in particular a deeply overplayed repetition joke in Act I). The language sounds uncomfortable in the actors' mouths as if they never quite know what world they're in. Consequently, the audience is never sure either.


It's a discouraging start to a dubious season for The House: this production is the only play in their 2018/19 lineup that's directed by a person of color, and every other production is written and directed by white men. The lack of femme leadership at The House is as visible in this production as I anticipate it will be throughout the season. For though Cozbi is the hero of the story, she's an underdeveloped character who's defined throughout by her relationship to men, in particular her brother. It's possible that The House has carved itself a niche that is quickly becoming irrelevant."






Aug 30th - Oct 21st. BOREALIS: When a redacted and ominous letter arrives from her brother on the oil fields, thirteen-year-old Cozbi sets off for Anwar, Alaska to find him. Armed with a book on corporate strategy and an axe, Cozbi battles her way through an Arctic wilderness in pursuit of her missing brother, squaring off against a host of monstrous Ass-Hats on each rung of the corporate ladder. Part mythic journey, part workplace satire, the play is a darkly comic adventure about family obligation, career aspiration, and what we leave behind to make our way to the top.


Author Bennett Fisher.

Director Monty Cole

Performers: Johnny Arena, McKinzie Chinn, Desmond Gray, Ben Hertel, Paige Hoffman, Madhura Jugade, Juan Munoz, Karissa J. Murrell Myers, Oly Oxinfry, and Tia Pinson.

Production Crew: Eleanor Kahn (scenic designer), Izumi Inaba (costume designer), Lee Keenan (lighting designer), Sarah Espinoza (sound designer), Matthew Muñiz (composer), Ellie Terrell (properties designer), Breon Arzell (choreographer), Gaby Labotka (fight choreographer), Abhi Shrestha (assistant director), and Amalie Vega (stage manager).