Psychologically Thrilling: ‘Gallery’ focuses on the antagonists of Batman and the depth of the human psyche
Browncoat Pub and Theatre continue their mission to promote original scripts—and geek out as much as possible—with Illinois playwright CJ Tuor’s 2008 piece “Gallery.” Essentially, the play’s a riff on Sartre’s “No Exit” but with Batman super villains.
Turning on the conceit that a prison break has occurred in the asylum housing of Gotham’s most dangerous homicidal maniacs, everyone has escaped except for five inmates who are (or believe themselves to be) Batman’s nemeses. They are chained to the asylum by a need to access the evidence room where the tools of their trade are housed. Here, they wait out the storm (apparently super villains don’t go out in the rain) until they can get the room unlocked. Meanwhile, the capped crusader approaches.
For an original script that appears to be written at the end of an undergraduate education, “Gallery” is remarkably good. Only one really unnecessary monologue exists in the second act; it’s the only element of the whole that didn’t serve to move the plot forward. Otherwise, the dialogue remains witty and fast, with lots of double-meaning and revealing an ever-unfolding psychological conundrum.
Our first introduction to this enigma comes in the form of The Riddler, a.k.a. Edward Nigma (Ross Helton), who is having a lengthy conversation with a dying security guard at the asylum (James Martin). He’s explaining his stunning intellect and that the human body just cannot contain it.
Helton is really great to watch onstage; he amasses an ever-expanding series of facial and body ticks throughout the evening—all the while utilizing a cane for his disabled leg—which he never forgets. Once a physicality is established, he maintains and heightens it—even during the fight scenes. He introduces this commitment with his shaking desperate grab for a pill bottle that is just out of reach on the floor. He carries it through while riddling his way around his adversaries. Add to it his physical performance, and he provides a complete commitment to his mental genius—the absolute necessity for the puzzles and fairness. Helton comes close to creating the only empathetic character in a script filled with antagonists.
Enter Dr. Jonathan Crane, The Scarecrow, played by Patrick Basquill. Of all five, The Joker (Phill Antonino) and The Scarecrow are probably the most challenging roles and for completely different reasons. The Joker is the moment that the comic-book fourth wall gets shattered: with green hair, pancake make-up and the requisite smile smear, The Joker is not just a caricature of himself—loud, large, physical, unpredictable. He truly terrifies everyone in the room. Crane, on the other hand, stays quiet, cold, calculating, and actually reads a copy of Brad Thor’s “Foreign Influence” for most of Act I, while covertly observing and analyzing the pawns around him. We can see him manipulating his best advantage. I enjoy Basquill onstage almost always; yet, his work with this group moves to a deeper level. Following his genuine listening and analysis (not just waiting 20 minutes for his next line), the audience really takes a journey with him that culminates when he dominates his adversaries in Act II. It is remarkable to witness.
Crane doesn’t come with the expectations that an iconic character like The Joker does: Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger leap to mind, followed closely by Cesar Romero. Antonino does choose a very stylized interpretation of The Joker with nods to all three (especially Nicholson in his opening scenes), but veers off to make the character as much his own as he can. The sheer unpredictability, combined with the fear that many people have for clowns, makes Antonino’s Joker truly frightening—and not just for the audience but for the other characters as well.
Poison Ivy, the alter ego of Dr. Pamela Isley, comes fleshed out thanks to Alissa Fetherolf. She brings a sweet innocence to the sultry, eco-terrorist-turned-feminist. As the only woman onstage, she does a good job of manipulating the men and playing them off each other without descending into overplaying a stereotypical seductress. Her scenes with Two-Face Harvey Dent (Jacob Keohane) are fraught and tense, bringing her fluid evolution into stark contrast with his static duality. Holding down the floor with quiet composure, Martin turns in a great performance as a corpse.
Tour clearly has a genuine love for the many incarnations of Batman and his adversaries. The playwright manages to get nods into the different comic books, cartoon, TV, and film interpretations, yet doesn’t bog down his writing in homage. That Batman never actually appears makes the threat clear: It’s not the actual fight with a super hero that worry the nemeses but their own internal drama. “Gallery” then becomes a psychological thriller more than a superhero story.
For one so young, Tour tackles heavy themes with insight, humor, and a strong command of many of the tools of his craft. Add in tight and insightful direction by Caleb Andrew Ward, and a cast that fires on all cylinders—and there is a tasty recipe for success.
Their success already is playing out well, as last week Browncoat sold out most runs of the show, Thursday through Sunday. Tickets are going fast, so get there early to get a good seat. The night I attended, extra chairs were pulled out of storage to accommodate the overflow. This is a wonderful show that deserves the attention.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Thurs. – Sun., Jan 16th – 19th, 23rd – 26th, 8 p.m. or Sun., 5 p.m.
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace St.