So! I saw this play the other night and it was really good.
It's called Valentine Victorious, written by Nathan Allen and directed by Dennis Watkins, and it was put on by the House Theatre of Chicago. It's the third part of the Valentine Trilogy, a series of plays telling one story over three genres. This last part was a superhero tale set in 1930's Chicago--one of my favorite tricks of the play being the lights and shadows cast against the back wall to give the illusion of a cityscape, the underside of the el tracks, or the headstones of Graceland Cemetery, as appropriate.
I really liked the first play, San Valentino and teh Melancholy Kid, and not a small part of that like was because it dealt with cowboys. I really disliked Curse of the Crying Heart, being part two and concerning samurais, mostly because I didn't think it lived up to the promise of chapter one, or of the promise of the House. I was disappointed overall with the House's second season (of which Crying Heart was a part--we're nearly through season three now, for those keeping score). The House's first full year of shows--dealing with Harry Houdini, cowboys, space ships, romance, 3-D, rock bands, death-defying escapes, violinists, and love, love, love--was presented with a fistful of hope for the future. I know a few theater types here and there, and I'm the only one I know who really likes the House--but that's mostly because they get a little snobby about theater. When we talk about why I like the House, they shake their heads, look at the ground, and say things like, "You now, there's a tradition . . . and if you're going to do theater . . . man, there's just this tradition, and you have to know you're walking in the footsteps of that tradition."
Their meaning being that the House somehow isn't, I suppose. But I think the House acknowledges that tradition in the best way you can, but taking the bits you like, changing the bits you don't, and taking a whole lot of other bits from other stuff. The House uses vaudeville, movies, comics, pop culture, everything they can get their eyes, ears, lips, noses and hands on. And I like that, even when their shows aren't perfect.
But with season two--and with Crying Heart--I felt that they were mostly treading water. I should exclude Cave With Man from that statement, which opened their second season, because that's one of the best plays I've seen them do. Cave was a play that operated almost wholly within its own invented language, which was fun and interesting to get your head around. And (at least the performance I saw) opened with the audience taking part in a drumming, beating, clapping ritual that made you feel like you were seeing some THEATER, man. It was a fun show. But Crying Heart, and Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe after it, didn't do anything new for me. When the House was clever in these two plays, it felt like they were doing it for clever's sake, as opposed to the sake of the play and the folks seeing it. I felt the same way after their third season opener, The Great and Terrible Oz.
But! Valentine Victorious puts them back on a track that I appreciate. I don't know if they do it consciously or not, but they seem to have one "gimmick" every play--magic tricks or 3D or wire-fu or something--and the trick this time worked a lot better than some others. Even with the Rocket Man, which I adored, the 3D seemed out of place and tricksy for the sake of it--but in Valentine, the House used oversized comic book panels during one scene that really called for it. It accentuated the scene and accomplished something that would have otherwise been absent. When this trilogy began I was excited about the use of music--the Trick Hearts have accompanied every performance of the Valentine Trilogy since it began, with the lead character (always played by Nathan Allen, except for a brief spell where he broke his hand during Valentine's run) singing and occasionally playing guitar. With San Valentino, I thought the music would match the genre somehow--but it seemed like that idea was abandoned after part one. Valentine offered a nice opportunity to bring that back with some period-inspired songs, but except for one particular sexy number sung by Carolyn Defrin, it was the same old heartache-rock. Maybe it's just a matter of taste, but for the most part I wanted to get back to the play this time around.
The dialogue was spot-on and snappy and the outfits evoked the feeling of comics and pulps without making the actors look unintentionally silly. I don't entirely understand what happened in the climactic scene--it's a battle between Valentine and his arch-foe, the Black Skull--but I think I worked it out on the bus ride to Pick Me Up after the show. But even that hiccup wasn't enough to throw the piece as a whole off-track. The show was a fitting end to the Trilogy and even, I dare say it, shows the House's growing maturity.
(Well, now that I think about it--the Trilogy's love story, mostly between Valentine and a girl who dies in part one, might need a little more closure. Or maybe it was a choice to keep that unspoken, in which case that's fine by me.)
It was a fine show put on by some fine folks, and if I'd known it was going to win my heart back I wouldn't have put it off until closing night. They close out their third season with Joe Meno's new play, written by Joe and based on his upcoming novel, The Boy Detective Fails. I think it starts in May. Also, they have a swell blog up at .