Theater: ‘Dreadful Penny’s Exquisite Horrors’ Wickedly Flirts With Fear, Fantasies, Faults

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CHICAGO – The minds who bring alive this risqué Chicago remount took their time to unearth their manipulatively seductive emcee.

They spent five years, in fact, to dig the now-coined “Dreadful Penny’s Exquisite Horrors” up from its resting place and rework the production into the quintessence of sex, violence, fear, fantasy and all the faults that make humans humane while also quite the contrary.

Jennifer R. LaTurner and Mike Simmer in the Chicago production of Dreadful Penny's Exquisite Horrors
Jennifer R. LaTurner and Mike Simmer in the Chicago
production of “Dreadful Penny’s Exquisite Horrors”.
Photo credit: Tantalus Theatre Group

Based on Matthew Rossi’s original iteration by a similar name (“Dreadful Penny’s Midnight Cavalcade of Ghoulish Delights”), writers Alexandra Herryman and Glen Cullen with direction by Cullen send a clear message we already all know: we’re both saints and sinners.

While that concept isn’t novel, the way the performance illustrates the point decisively flirts with a new message: not only do we sin, but many of us do and hide it or want to and deny it.

Jennifer R. LaTurner as Penny incites her human slaves to embrace their humanities no matter how exquisite and no matter how vile. Her character and delivery of the unassailable seductress take some warming up to not only for audiences but for herself as well. She grows more comfortable in her own skin as the show wears on.

While each of her workhorses have clearly defined trades, Mike Simmer as the freak rises above and best believes the emotion behind his actions. As well, Amy Sherman as the victim persuasively squirms in her focal role and Mallory Schuh as the dancer sells sex with style.

While the play has been put up in the past and clearly workshopped tirelessly this time around, a healthy dose of fine tuning would better suspend your disbelief for longer instead of creating momentary lapses where you remember they’re acting.

Props go to the overall topic of tackling the taboo and theatre’s ability in general to shine a spotlight on what we’re too busy to consider in our fast-paced Chicago lives.

Cullen wants to impel you “to an uncanny sideshow of longing and desire where all manner of monstrosities are revealed and reveled in and nothing is forbidden” so you can choose sanely come back to a better place than before.

In retrospect, I realized some of the difficulties with performance believability were derived from some of the choices in the story and its warts-and-all presentation even right out of the gate. As is, you’re somewhat slighted that this is disturbing solely for the purpose of disturbance without a higher purpose.

Cast members are clearly more comfortable breaking their own fourth walls than audience members are being sucked into them.

While the performance’s purpose is to dramatize reality and embellish our demonic traits, it’d more easily ease onlookers in had it started with a more everyday scene. Then going guns blazing and unleashing the fury of everyone’s ghastly enigmas would not only build for excellent climax but also more convincingly remind you this fiction is derived from fact.

“Dreadful Penny’s Exquisite Horrors” runs through March 29 at the Bailiwick Arts Center at 1229 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago. 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets cost $10. A trailer for the production from the Tantalus Theatre Group can be viewed below.

© 2008 Adam Fendelman, editor-in-chief Adam Fendelman


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