“Unwilling and Hostile Instruments” Falls Apart Due To Weak “Glue”

UAHI-3Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women,” performed by Theatre Seven is a now playing at American Theatre Company. The play is about seven historical women, all with Chicago ties and performed in eight, unrelated plays. In between each play runs a ninth called “The Glue.” “The Glue” is a group of artists rehearsing the eight other plays, and usually discussing each one briefly when they are finished.

The eight plays tell short, historically-influenced stories about Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, Cora Strayer, Maurine Watkins, Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer), Mavis Staples and Myra Bradwell. Playwrights Elai ne Romero, Carla Stillwell, Emily Schwartz, Seth Bockley Lauren Yee, Travis Williams, Nick Ward and Ike Holder penned the plays corresponding to the women listed above, respectively. Theatre Seven Artistic Director Brian Golden wrote “The Glue.”

The setting has the cast rehearsing at a shuttered Hull House Theatre in Chicago – which is imagined well at American Theatre Company – showing off an old and rustic set that resembles a closed rehearsal room. It’s an interesting tangUAHI-2ent, seemingly meant to create some continuity between the other plays and allows the cast to provide some context for each one.

Unfortunately, “The Glue” does not help hold the play together but just leaves a sticky mess between the production’s better acts. Context is one thing but explanation is another. It’s funny that at numerous times during the production and in the playbill the audience is told no one wants to tell them how to feel about the politics of the performance – because that is exactly what happens after almost every scene.

“Unwilling and Hostile Instruments” is the not first of some recent plays that trades artistic-driven activism for long drawn-out sermons by cast members . It’s noble to encourage societal changes, but at the theatre it shouldn’t come in the same form it does from whiny idealoges on cable news programs. And that’s what it sounds like at it’s best – throughout most of the play it was like viewing a tween dramedy on the Nick Jr. channel. There was a lot of dialogue that sounded akin to, “Ida B. Wells was mad-cool, yo.” As if it was some sort of trying-too-hard-to-be-hip after school special. It would have made sense for “The Glue” to be just that, and while it wouldn’t be more enjoyable, the characters would be more real. However, given that they talk more than once about their college degrees and grabbing drinks after rehearsal, it’s obvious they are not older actors cast as 15-year-olds.

The real shame is that “The Glue” smothers some other, very well-written and well-performed plays. The cast brings the important characters to life with plenty of their own passion that doesn’t require explanation. Particularly the pieces on Ann Landers and Ida B. Wells stood just fine on their own. It’s worth a trip to see the historical shorts in “Unwilling and Hostile Instruments,” but sadly, you’ll likely find yourself too stuck in “The Glue” to fully appreciate them.

“Unwilling and Hostile Instruments” plays October 1 – October 27 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St. in Chicago. Curtain Times: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $16 -$20. For calender information, visit theatreinchicago.com. Tickets are available at www.theatreseven.org.