180 Degree Rule

by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 29, 2016

180 Degree Rule

"180 Degree Rule" represents the 18th world premiere production for Babes With Blades Theatre Company. In it, playwrights Barbara Lhota and M. E. H. Lewis find inspiration in Studio Era Hollywood and the tail end of Weimar Germany. The story, a blend of murder mystery and memory play, according to director Rachel Edwards Harvith, has all the intrigue and glamour of the period, but the show suffers from a too-convoluted plot and some mismatched performances.

The play opens in the 1960s with Katie Dunham (Kate Black-Spence), a young, part-time film professor trying to interest her class in Ruth Alice Bennett and her death under mysterious circumstances. Dunham's passion for the story extends far beyond the classroom, though.

She's joined by the now-reclusive Margot Faber, star of Bennett's films and rumored to have been her lover. Through a blend of film clips projected directly on to the white walls of the set and flashbacks that play out on the stage, Margot reluctantly spills her secrets and learns Katie's along the way.

The shift from "present" to past and back again takes getting used to, and the lighting (Laura J. Wiley) and sound design (Leigh Barrett) don't support the action as well as they need to in this regard. But for the duration of the first act, the story sells, largely thanks to the stellar performance of Lisa Herceg as Margo. In her immense dark glasses and Joan Crawford head scarf, she's dour and deadpan and devastatingly funny.

Unfortunately, in the second act, the twists wear out their welcome. They come fast and furious as the true circumstances of Ruth's death are revealed. The drama feels manufactured, and as the play winds down on long, sentimental moment between Margot, Katie and the Ruth that was, one gets the sense that the show doesn't know what its own climax was meant to be.

Problems with the source are further complicated by the fact that as Ruth, Amy E. Harmon almost seems to be acting on a different stage. Her delivery is slow-paced, mannered and unrelentingly earnest. This works in the scenes where she tries to argue for her vision (though these are too few and far between for a story that insists on her considerable talent), but there's no spark with Herceg and the love story, which has considerable potential, ends up being done a double disservice.

Despite the ways in which the play misses the mark, there's plenty that's interesting here. Carter Martin's filmed scenes are beautiful and grotesque when projected on to the modest, domestic space that forms most of the stage (Projection and Scenic Design by G. Max Maxin IV). Two steps down from the "stage," the City Lit space is crowded with projectors and props tables and film stock. The walls are draped with costumes and hats and a dozen carefully chosen elements that lend a not-quite-real quality to everything.

Beth Laske-Miller's costumes give Margot a timeless quality that renders her remarkable and yet at home in Germany and Los Angeles, as well as in the present and past. In an odd choice, though, Ruth has a single costume, unremarkable and not attached to any particular moment in time, throughout the show.

In the supporting cast, Tommy Bullington and Chris Cinereski do solid work in roles where they're called on to play male stereotypes of the era. (That's not meant as a criticism. This seems a deliberate and effective move that throws the complex women into productive contrast.) Jason Andrew Narvy is exceptionally good as Gilbert Bailey, Margot's frequent co-star and beard. Navy and Herceg connect and play off one another with all the chemistry one wishes Margot and Ruth had.

"180 Degree Rule" plays through May 21 at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago. For tickets or information, call 773-904-0391 or visit babeswithblades.org

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.