Review: Borealis (The House Theatre)

| September 11, 2018

Tia Pinson and Desmond Gray star as Cozbi and Absalom in Borealis, The House Theatre Chicago    




Written by Bennett Fisher  
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
thru Oct 21  |  tix: $30-$50  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    


Intelligent, exciting sci-fi world premiere


Paige Hoffman (Langley), Johnny Arena (Parsons) and Tia Pinson (Cozbi) star in Borealis, House Theatre Chicago

The House Theatre of Chicago presents

Review by Lauren Emily Whalen

It’s hard not to love a play that makes liberal use of the word “asshat.” Bennett Fisher’s Borealis makes as liberal use of words like “festooned” as it does profanity, through dialogue that rings of free verse without the pretension. Borealis has the type of premise – sci-fi adventure that’s also a takedown of corporate culture – that will be either an epic success or an epic failure. Thankfully, the House Theatre’s world premiere fits squarely in Tia Pinson and McKenzie Chinn star as Cozbi and Burke in Borealis, The House Theatre Chicagothe former category, emphasizing truth and specifics as much as it does weirdness. Borealis is equal parts Return to Oz, Black Mirror and The Office, a coming-of-age story with a young girl of color at its center that satirizes buzzwords and HR in the midst of an incredible journey.

Tia Pinson has made a name for herself in the Chicago theater world over the past few years, and here she positively shines. As Cozbi, a young teen whose beloved brother disappears after taking off for his demanding but well-paid job on an Alaskan oil rig, she’s tough and scrappy, wielding an ax and trading packs of cigarettes for information. She’s also armed with a book on corporate communication, which saves her more than once as she investigates the ins and outs of her brother’s workplace. Thanks to Fisher’s strong yet sensitive portrait of a girl on a quest, and Pinson’s nuanced portrayal, Cozbi comes alive, and the audience is with her every minute of Borealistwo-hour running time. Whether she’s battling a multi-tentacled human resources director (Ben Hertel) with a lethal coffee-blend preference, or facing off with a confident but dangerous supervisor (a gorgeous, vibrant McKenzie Chinn), Cozbi is an ideal young adult fantasy heroine, finding her way in a world that is determined to suck her soul.

Tia Pinson (Cozbi), Desmond Gray (Absalom) and Johnny Arena (Jabez) star in Borealis, House TheatreTia Pinson and Desmond Gray star as Cozbi and Absalom in Borealis, The House Theatre Chicago Paige Hoffman (McKnight), Johnny Arena (Rutledge) and Tia Pinson (Cozbi) star in Borealis, House TheatreBen Hertel and Tia Pinson star as Titus and Cozbi in Borealis, House Theatre Chicago Tia Pinson and Desmond Gray star as Cozbi and Absalom in Borealis, House Theatre ChicagoDesmond Gray and Johnny Arena star as Absalom and Jabez in Borealis, House Theatre

I have a recurring issue with the many contemporary sci-fi, fantasies and comic book pop culture: no one learns anything. I don’t need a pat lesson, but I do want to see the protagonist succeed, fail, grow and change, rather than blow up buildings while wisecracking. (Sorry, “Iron Man.”) In Borealis, Cozbi isn’t always right. Some of her opposers are truly evil, set on destroying her while espousing corporate-speak, but others are just trying to get by, wistfully remembering their lost children or finding a real purpose in being useful to the higher-ups. As quirky commissary worker Abbot (Karissa Murrell Myers) explains: s he has a paycheck, benefits and a place to call her own – maybe she’s not happy all the time, but who is? As much as he sends up ridiculous office culture, Fisher gives respect to those who find comfort and meaning in it, humanizing rather than villainizing these characters.

Eleanor Kahn’s scenic design invokes a 1980s-style vision of the future: the audience sits in a green and purple cube with sliding doors, watching the action play out in very close, almost claustrophobic, quarters. Director Monty Cole spends part of the year in Los Angeles, and it shows: Borealis has more of a Hollywood touch than most House Theatre productions, a retro Disney Channel movie feel that works incredibly well for the story. Aided by Breon Arzell’s intricate movement design and Gaby Labotka’s stellar-as-always fight choreography, Borealis is the whole package. It’s funny, scary, inspiring and a reminder of the harsh life lessons we all endure in adolescence: that the ones we love and idolize are very different than what we thought, and in order to live how we want, we have to figure out our own way. Here’s to specifics and truth.

Rating: ★★★½

Borealis continues through October 21st at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 3pm or 7pm.  Tickets are $30-$50 (students & industry same-day $20) and are available by phone (773-278-1500) or online through their website (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

Ben Hertel (Kemp) with Paige Hoffman and Johnny Arena in Borealis, House Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




McKenzie Chinn (Burke), Tia Pinson (Cozbi), Desmond Gray (Absalom), Karissa Murrell Myers (Abbot), Johnny Arena (Rutledge, Parsons, Jabez), Ben Hertel (Titus, Holcomb, Kemp), Paige Hoffman (McKnight, Langley, Zebedee, u/s Burke), Madhura Jugade, Juan Munoz, Oly Oxinfry (understudies)

behind the scenes

Monty Cole (director), Eleanor Kahn (scenic design), Lee Keenan (lighting design), Izumi Inaba (costume design), Breon Arzell (movement director), Matthew Muñiz (composer), Gaby Labotka (fight director), Ellie Terrell (props design), Joseph Burke (projection design), Marika Mashburn (director of casting), Amalie Vega (stage manager), Abhi Shrestha (asst. director), Samantha Rausch (technical director), Erin Pleake (asst. projection design), Veronica Bustoz (asst. stage manager), Jerica Hucke (costume manager), David Trudeau (master electrician), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Tia Pinson stars as Cozbi in Borealis, House Theatre of Chicago Karissa Murrell Myers stars as Abbott in Borealis, House Theatre of ChicagoTia Pinson stars as Cozbi in Borealis, The House Theatre of Chicago


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Category: 2018 Reviews, Chopin Theatre, House Theatre, Lauren Emily Whalen, New Work, Sci-fi, World Premier

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