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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Ghost Bike

Or: Like a Bike Out’a Hades

I am much obliged to playwright Laura Jacqmin for her smart and resourceful welding together of the mythologies of death, the old stories our ancestors faced when they slipped or were propelled across the threshold of the hereafter, and the city of Chicago and all its attendant tenacity. Ours is a patchwork city, knitted from a score of cultures and communities, and it is only logical that the underworld beneath our parks and pavement should be the same: a confederation of Japanese, African, Greek, and Nordic afterlives, rough and tumble boroughs for the dead. Jacqmin has fitted all these elements together into a bright and intricate world, given it two wheels (and no breaks) and handed it over to Sara Sawicki and her cast to try it out and pop a few wheelies of artistic brilliance.

Eddie (Ricky Staffieri) has been Ora’s (Aurora Adachi-Winter) best friend since before either could remember: on their bikes they have seen every inch of Chicago’s streets “the dark spots and the light”. But when Eddie meets a brutal grill-and-asphalt end after a fierce argument, Ora is left without her other half and without the forgiveness her soul so desperately needs. While fleeing from the suffocating confines of friends family and therapy she runs into a grooving and lascivious satyr (Scot West) who shows her the way to Chicago’s Underworld. There Ora must beg, bargain or barge her way past the gods and demons who rule the roost, seek out her Eddie’s soul and bring him, by hook or by crook, back to the land of the living.

Sawiki has done a exquisite job of choreographing the energy of this constantly peddling story, tattooing these ancient ledges to fit in modern times, and keeping a play where every single cast member rides an honest-to-goodness bicycle around the set, safe and riveting. She keeps the wonderlandian quality of the underworld on a short leash, and never loses sight of the bleeding heart of Ora’s pain, the confused state of being dead, and how the one state of being ripples the other.

She has also lucked out in a first rate scenic designer, John Wilson, who forges an exact replica of a BMX park, all concrete and mottled graffiti, accurate down to the shredded corpses of plastic bags appended to the chain link fences. The grungy plastic curtains, wooden ramps and fences take time to wheel about, but the cast ensures we are never board as Ora or others wiz by, inches from our knees. Costume and Properties designers Izumi Inaba and Molly Fitzmaurice, rise to the occasion and equip their cast in the punky style of the world below. You’ll never believe how Cerberus (Alex Tey, Margaret Cook, and Quincey Krull) on a BMX and Rollerblades or the willothewhisp reflectors on the bikes of underworld until you see them. But the best moments of theatrical magic are Sawiki’s and Nathan Drackett, the choreographer, who lets the currents of our imaginations meet her half way: who else can so fully transform a pile of blue poncho-ed bodies become the river Styx or a single electric cord become the branch of a judgement tree?

For her part Jacqmin has created a fantastic world and an honest conundrum about life and death and growing up that sticks in the throat in the best possible way, but it might do her well to take it back to the workshop once the run is over. Though the language is poetic and witty it is at times oblong and awkward in the air (lines like “I’ve subdued you!” just don’t quite have the punch they’re meant to).

There is many a hackle raising close shave and sudden twist as Ora discovers more and more complications on her quest but, to quote my companion, a smarter play surgeon than I could hope to be, “The ending is too easy. Ora needs to be made to suffer more.” And while our heroine does suffer a great deal, the climax and closing of the show coasts where it ought to plunge.

This is not to say that Adachi-Winter doesn’t keep things bitter and sweet right to the last minute. Her Ora is a bright and billowing flame of a gel: (it’s hard to pin an exact age on our heroes, they could be anywhere from thirteen to nineteen, the only thing we know for certain is they are “young”) ready to pick a fight for fun or on principal or for her life. Despite her great traumas, Adachi-Winter does not let our heroine break easily; there by making those few moments of pain or sadness more harrowing for her and us. Staffieri is, in a word, ‘sweet’ as an Eddie full of the awkward assurance of a young man with the city at his fingertips and his best pal at his side, though death has covered him with a film of almost indefinable detachment. As for the psychopomps, the keepers of the dead, we get such delights as the nasty snarling Cerberus skaters (Tey, Cook, and Krull each with matching, death’s head grins); Light Hel and Dark Hel (Lea Pascal and Thea Lux) twin goddess’s and guardians of lackluster souls, who hail from the roots of Yggdrasil but sound like they come from Mankato, “Minasooda”; and Datsue-ba (Pascal again) an old woman with a taste for inventive punishments and fresh flesh. In a lively play of literal punk rock gods and pomegranate product placement, Datsue-ba reminds us that for sheer menace and scare factor, ‘there’s no ghoul like the old ghoul’.

Ghost Bike is fun and sweet and painful and thrilling all at once and is perhaps one of the most active and inventive shows this year. It is always in motion and brings our modern sensibilities to commingle with the old stories that make up the cultural connection of the Second (to none) City. But its real power lies not only in its fancy tricks with great mythologies but in illuminating the little mythologies: the stories we conceive about our childhoods, our friends, our families, our relationship to our home turf and to our own, closer than we ever think, mortalities. Sometimes these stories are pretty accurate and sometimes they swing far wide of the mark but they are what carry us throughout our lives and, like any good bike, need a tune up once in a while, before they can carry us over the horizon of our destiny.

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