Salar Ardebili (foreground) in ‘Through the Elevated Line.’ (Photo: Airan Wright)
By Becky Sarwate
Somehow in my theatrical wanderings, I’ve never read the script, nor attended a production of Tennessee Williams’ ubiquitous A Streetcar Named Desire. So after seeing Through the Elevated Line, the latest offering from Silk Road Rising, I took to Google to familiarize myself with the material’s themes and plot summary. The world premiere by playwright Novid Parsi bills itself as containing “echoes” of Williams’ work and indeed, Parsi nails the fundamental disagreeability of the three lead characters. I’m not sure what’s in the water cooler within the Chicago theater community, but antiheroes are having a somewhat dominant moment.
In Elevated, the dishonest and self-awareless Blanche DuBois becomes Razi (Salar Ardebili), a slight, openly gay man fleeing unknown hardships and haunted memories to join his sister and her husband in Chicago. The Stella to his Blanche is Soraya (Catherine Dildilian), a budding dermatologist Americanized by her Western education and complicated marriage to Wrigleyville Bro archetype, Chuck (Joshua J. Volkers). Chuck is an odd hybrid of 21st Century social liberalism and toxic maleness that is sort of perfect for the current cultural debate around gender dynamics. Volkers does good work portraying the big, bullying man with repellent hints of sexiness.
The Chicago Red Line train replaces William’s streetcar, offering a neat parallel as well as a plot device. As Razi, Soraya and Chuck engage in a circle jerk of psychological torture in a home that the married couple is trying to flip, the rumble of the tracks and sparks of light punctuate scenes alternately intimate and threatening. Sound designer Jeffrey Levin does a brilliant job weaving the consistent sounds of gentrified urban life into relationship dynamics grown increasingly volatile.
But there’s a plot device I don’t understand, and I don’t think it works, even if it offers an opportunity to mirror the structure of Streetcar. Because it’s so idiosyncratic, allow me to quote the production’s press release to introduce the subject:
“Having fled Iran where he was imprisoned for being a gay man, a damaged Razi arrives at his sister’s doorstep in Chicago… as the Chicago Cubs vie to make history, rivalries of a different kind simmer.”
Yes, the plot of Elevated moves forward in strange partnership with the 2016 Major League Baseball season that finally saw the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. The most infamous winless streak in sports history finally concluded in November that year, and legions of fans across the globe wept, celebrated and breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief.
That MLB season typically stretched from early April to late October, with markers of time (such as the All-Star Break) included in Parsi’s script to call specific attention to Razi’s prolonged inertia, as well as a pregnant Soraya’s growing belly. The timeline also echoes the long, hot, New Orleans summer during which Williams’ Streetcar characters destroy each other.
Comprehending this tenuous parallel, however, doesn’t make it logical. I’m not sure Parsi is totally comfortable with the decision to shoehorn the history-making 2016 Cubs into his script either. The very last line is delivered by Chuck’s best friend Ben (Scott Shimizu), which I won’t reveal in the interest of spoiler discretion. What I will say is that the dialogue is emblematic of the entire challenge presented by the team’s inclusion — jarring and inorganic.
That said, storyline idiosyncrasy does not detract from the strengths of Through the Elevated Line. Solid performances are offered by Dildilian, Volkers and in particular, Philip Winston as Razi’s confounded suitor, Sean. As the immigrant’s saintly backstory dissolves, and his poetic words are exposed as manipulations, Winston conveys the heartbreaking shame that accompanies realization — that we’ve loved a person who never really existed.
I’ve already cited the production’s quality sound work. Set designer Joe Schermoly meets Levin’s challenge by visually capturing summer in Chicago from a construction site. The efforts of the technical teams deserve credit for the show’s qualified success.
As a theater company, Silk Road Rising is known for taking creative risks. As the only outfit in the country solely dedicated to presenting Asian American and Middle Eastern American stories, founders Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury are continually breaking exciting new ground. Even imperfect results, like Through the Elevated Line, are worth the Windy City theater community’s time and attention.
Through the Elevated Line
Silk Road Rising
77 W Washington St., Chicago, IL
Through April 15
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic and blogger. On March 29, 2018, her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.