With The Recommendation, Windy City Playhouse solidifies itself as a theater company at the forefront of immersive theater.
I admit that I was more dismissive than intrigued in early 2018 when the Playhouse started promoting Southern Gothic. The experience promised to take theatergoers into the heart of a Southern dinner party in the 1960’s. Immersive theater? I kept picturing moments from Cats when actors walk into the aisles and start rubbing their heads against patrons’ bodies.*
Having seen Southern Gothic twice, I can assure you that it is an innovative marvel in direction, acting, and set design. Eight actors perform throughout a three-room set (four rooms if you count the front porch) rolling out an intricate plot filled with adultery, political backstabbing, racial tension, shady business deals, and plenty of alcohol. The audience shares in a few drinks while moving freely throughout the rooms, choosing which of the simultaneous conversations they want to watch. Here is what I learned on my second viewing: when in doubt, choose the room that has the fewest characters at any given time—much of the juiciest dialogue is spoken during the “private conversations.”
Southern Gothic is worthy of its critical praise and its word of mouth, which led to a successful move from Windy City Playhouse’s main space on Irving Park Road to a new location in the South Loop. However, The Recommendation manages to take the immersive theater experience to an even higher level. Maybe the difference is that Southern Gothic was written as an immersive play while The Recommendation has been performed professionally with nothing more than folding chairs. The script by Jonathan Caren—filled with intriguing themes regarding privilege and friendship and the value of one’s word—stands on its own but is elevated several levels with the scenic design by Lauren Nigri.
In the lobby we are introduced to Iskinder Iodouku (Michael Aaron Pogue), who breaks the fourth wall to tell us about Aaron Feldman (Julian Hestor). Aaron Feldman, who is notably always referred to by his full name, breezed into Brown University on his charm and the types of recommendations that are so glowing that they reflect more on his family’s stature than on Aaron Feldman’s actual accomplishments. Iskinder, the son of an Ethiopian immigrant, has none of Aaron Feldman’s money or connections, but he managed to work his way into Brown.
Iskinder’s resentment toward Aaron Feldman is palpable from the start, which is why the second scene adds such an intriguing twist. We walk through a door into their freshmen dorm room and watch the characters’ first meeting (complete with JELLO-O shots for the audience**) to see the origins of a wonderfully complex friendship developed with great skill by playwright Jonathan Caren. On a superficial level, Iskinder uses Aaron Feldman to introduce him to the world where connections mean more than hard work while Aaron Feldman uses Iskinder to feel superior by comparison. Yet, digging deeper, we discover that this friendship is much more balanced than Iskinder implies in the opening scene. Iskinder and Aaron Feldman genuinely like each other and need each other despite their very different backgrounds and personalities.
Move further into the magnificent set, and we find ourselves in an authentic holding cell. Aaron Feldman has gotten into trouble and he is now waiting with a potentially unhinged cellmate named Dwight Barnes (Brian Keyes). This is a reversal for Aaron Feldman, who is wholly unprepared for jail. He strikes a deal with Dwight—if Dwight protects him in prison, Aaron Feldman will get his lawyer father to help Dwight beat the sketchy accusation that will likely land Dwight back in jail.
From beginning the end, The Recommendation includes many twists which ultimately create a triangle between Iskinder, Aaron Feldman, and Dwight with tight bonds of personal responsibility binding them together. The action in the second act moves the audience from a saké bar (with some great rice wine), back to the holding cell, and finally into an immaculately constructed sauna. Windy City Playhouse utilizes a long, narrow black box space with limited seating at its Irving Park theater, and after the show—aside from having a deep conversation about the most important takeaways from the script—I wished I could see an overhead view of what Nigri created so I could better understand how she created this maze of unique settings within the limited space.
One cannot overstate the extent to which the immersive experience enhances the drama of The Recommendation. Standing so close to Iskinder, Dwight, and Aaron Feldman and walking in their footsteps enriches each of the thought-provoking ideas in this timely script.
*As an adult who just saw Cats again, I could not help but imagine every actor thinking at various times: “How has my career come to this?”
**For those audience members (like my mother) who might have forgotten how a JELL-O shot works, use your finger to separate the JELL-O from the the plastic cup.