It's one of the enduring tropes of Chicago theater: a group of young artists, inspired by the example of Steppenwolf, get together to put on shows and build a family based on aesthetic affinity (and let's face it — romantic complications). Sometimes it lasts one summer. But for the lucky ones, it lasts years.
Gift Theatre Company, the smallest Equity troupe in town, celebrates a decade on the edge with "Ten," a free sampler platter of short plays by authors with whom they've worked in the past. As is often the case with anthology shows, not all the pieces have staying power. But taken in whole, they add up to an engaging portrait of the qualities that make Gift a treasure — namely, an emphasis on writing that tackles thorny questions of mortality with rich compassion, and on acting that fills, but never overpowers, the company's shoebox Jefferson Park venue.
The evening opens with ensemble member Jenny Connell's "Chrysalis," in which two souls on the verge of reincarnation have to shed all the memories of their last life, represented by paper airplanes let loose on the audience. It closes with a reading from "No Stars in Jefferson Park," ensemble member Maggie Andersen's memoir of how the Gift was born. And though both pieces carry the potential for self-indulgence, vulnerable and honest performances triumph.
Guy Massey brings biting wit and a dash of self-loathing to J.T. Rogers' monologue "Seven Lies," in which a smug skeptic in Salt Lake City ends up attending a recruiting session for the Mormons because of his obsession with the comely tour guide. Caitlin Montanye Parrish (who wrote last year's break-out hit "A Twist of Water") limns an awkward but heartfelt first date between Anna Carini's cute science nerd and Boyd Harris' prone-to-tears young man who is facing the loss of his canine companion.
David Rabe (whose "Hurlyburly" — a play I've never much cared for — received a stellar production at Gift in 2006) provides a snapshot of two brothers (Paul D'Addario and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton) trying to reconnect after very different life experiences in "It's Just the Moon." Thornton, whose own journey back from a pair of life-threatening strokes in 2003 forms its own dramatic backstory for the company, also takes the stage with his nimble improv troupe, Natural Gas, in one of the 10 segments.
In the most chilling piece, Craig Wright's "Dead," Cyd Blakewell relates, a la "The Lovely Bones," the story of a young girl who has been murdered. She tells us "I'm dead, and I'm speaking through the playwright, and I'm speaking through this person." When she passes her story on by whispering into the ear of an audience member who then assumes her role, the link between past, present, and future becomes a bright shining wire of memory, loss, regret — and the potential for redemption. A fine theatrical gift, indeed — and it's free.
Through Jan. 15 at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.; free, but phone reservations required by phone only at 773-283-7071
More free tickets kick off the new year with Oracle Productions, who are entering their second year of "public access theater" in their own tiny Lakeview venue. April De Angelis' "Ironmistress," directed by Karen Yates, is a stark poetic 75-minute piece for two actresses that owes more than a little to Caryl Churchill in both style and subject matter. (In a 2006 interview with the Guardian, De Angelis even admits that the play was "really 'Top Girls' in another guise.")
But though the story feels a little derivative, De Angelis has a knack for creating disturbing imagery. Martha Darby (Katherine Keberlein), who has inherited a foundry in 1850s England, tries to raise her daughter, Little Cog (Sarah Goeden), to be another Iron Lady who will marry for social position, not love. The parallels with free-market-loving Margaret Thatcher seem deliberate — at one point, Darby proclaims that "transactions should be gray and free of feeling, like iron." Her cruel treatment of her workers and glimpses into her own emotionally impoverished childhood suggest that fate is the anvil on which dreams are crushed.
So yes, some of the symbolism hits like a sledgehammer, but Yates has created a suitably chilly atmosphere, aided by Michael Mroch's set with its metal framing and costumer Darcy Elora Hofer's Vivienne Westwood-esque corset dresses, which serve as vivid visual reminders of the suffocating constraints of sexism and capitalism under which this mother and daughter must negotiate the world. And what better way to kick the capitalist model in the teeth than by offering your wares for free?
Through Feb. 11 at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway St.; free, reservations at 252-220-0269 or oracletheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now