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Theater Mon Apr 11 2011

The Hot L Baltimore Shakes its Groove Thang at Steppenwolf

HotLBaltimore-1.jpg

Allison Torem with ensemble member Jon Michael Hill in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of The Hot L Baltimore by Lanford Wilson, directed by ensemble member Tina Landau. Photo by Michael Brosilow.


Uncertain times like these seem to prompt us to revisit classic stories of loss and desperation, which, unfortunately, seem uncannily appropriate again. And the point of this, I think, is not to wallow in our misery but to acknowledge that history does indeed repeat itself and to remind us that there are more important things than money and power-- things like simple human interaction and compassion.

Steppenwolf's adaptation of Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore does this beautifully. Although the afros and booty shorts immediately remind us that the play is set in 1973, the spirit of the conversations and the wistful optimism reflected in them mimic the spirit of the downtrodden American people today.

Most of the action in the play takes place in the once majestic but long-neglected lobby of the Hotel Baltimore, though we can see into the hotel rooms upstairs as well-- a clever addition by the Steppenwolf people, in keeping with this season's public/private theme. The set is breathtaking and impeccably-detailed, from the fully-furnished, distinctive hotel rooms upstairs to the giant, neon hotel sign with the requisite missing "e", all the way down to the red checker piece that is glued to the convincingly faux-finished marble floor. The large cast makes thorough use of the space, too, inhabiting it as if it were a real hotel-- making it hard to imagine any other play ever taking place in the theater. The hotel is more of an apartment building, really, as its guests are all long-time residents-- prostitutes and other people embedded in various stages of desperation, just getting by on the fringes of society.

The story in The Hot L Baltimore is driven by the conversations in it--all of them colorful--with topics ranging from sexual escapades to whole foods, punctuated by poetic and melancholy monologues by The Girl (Allison Torem) and beautiful but eerie ghost-singing by Sean Allan Krill.

There is a lot of symbolism in this play, but it is never spelled out for us. It is what we make it. During the post-show discussion last week, many audience members imagined the ghost character as a metaphor for the hotel itself, others viewed the hotel as a metaphor for the characters' dreams, and there was mention of the missing "e" standing in for all the lost characters of the Hotel Baltimore. And there is an undeniable musicality to it, as well. In addition to the actual music, of which there is plenty, the dialogue is clearly and tightly choreographed, sometimes overlapping and gracefully weaving in and out. There is a constant fluidity to it, as well--although it could be said that not much actually happens, the play always keeps rolling along like a train. One audience member noted that she senses this driving force when reading all of Wilson's plays, but has never seen it so accurately translated to stage before.

There is no question that this is a top-notch production, with impressive attention to detail and some of the most affecting acting I've seen in theater. It is certainly what we have come to expect from Steppenwolf. These guys aren't messing around. I suggest that you don't mess around, either, and check it out while you still can.

The Hot L Baltimore is playing at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre now through May 29. For tickets and/or more information, visit steppenwolf.org.

 
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