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Warm Plays For A Cold Winter: Honky Tonk Angels and La Gringa Offer Escape From the Chill


La GringaFor attracting playgoers in the winter months, nobody can dispute the advantages offered by plays boasting locales where overcoats are strictly tourist garb, to be promptly shed upon leaving the airport. Two shows currently running into 2017 provide audiences an opportunity to escape freezing Chicago temperatures: UrbanTheatre's La Gringa transports us to a sunny island in the Caribbean, and Honky Tonk Angels to the green hills of Tennessee.

A family tale of an American-born young woman looking to reconnect with her Puerto Rican family, La Gringa opened in Humboldt Park's Paseo Boricua at the beginning of November, at which time one critic declared that it "conjures pictures of a tropical paradise." The action of the play transpires over the length and breadth of the island nation, but the major part of the stage is given over to a house whose rooms open onto gardens lush with foliage, and later, onto neighboring farms where crops are harvested daily.

Director Miranda Gonzalez cites the background facades of mountains and other natural formations as a factor contributing to the audience's immersion in their dramatic environment. The actors, too, strive to convey a subconscious awareness of their surroundings. Anthony DeJesus, who plays the handsome jibaro-next-door, admits, "When we lounge in front of the casita, or dig in the ground for root vegetables, we imagine the sultry air, the refreshing cool breezes, the smell of the earth and everything that grows from it."

Another locating device that cannot be ignored are the coqui, the tiny tree frogs whose ubiquitous song is synonymous with Puerto Rico. Says Sound designer Antonio Bruno, "Christmas salsa and alguinaldo music puts our audiences in the holiday spirit when they enter the theater, but the coqui are what keep us aurally anchored throughout the entire play."

Recreating an island paradise on a street dominated by crowded storefronts is challenging enough, but the No Exit cafe housing Theo Ubique since 2004 has the additional obstacle of being tucked away on a cobblestone lane flanked by the Red Line El tracks. The company that mounted Pump Boys and Dinettes in 2011 and Always Patsy Cline in 2015 has logged in plenty of practice at creating a cozy ambience welcoming a variety of playgoers, however.

Traditional 'holiday' shows—no matter how inclusive—cannot help but divide audiences, given the uneven mix of selections available in the seasonal repertoire, but company founder Fred Anzevino isn't afraid to break with expectations. "What better way to celebrate than an all-American story of three spunky women looking to re-invent themselves and taking heart from old-timey, fierce-blooded, down-home country tunes? The music is where the characters in Ted Swindley's musical revue find their commonality as they pursue their dreams, so when they sing gospel, it's not about religion so much as about our cultural heritage."

The No Exit cafe's own cultural heritage as one of Chicago's oldest clubs for folk and acoustical music also makes it especially appropriate for music based in bluegrass and mountain regions. While waiting for the show to commence, playgoers may contemplate the historical legacy of the intimate forum that spawned such luminaries as Steve Goodman, Michael Smith and Andrew Calhoun.

Scenic Designer Adam Veness concurs, "[Director] Courtney Crouse said he wanted it to feel warm, so we applied that description to the entire environment. Audiences will walk through the door into a Nashville roadhouse Honky Tonk, complete with wrap-around wood paneling, guitars on the walls, neon bar signs, murals and memorabilia." He grins mischievously, "If I do my job right, patrons who've never been to the No Exit before will think it always looked like that."

La Gringa re-opens at UrbanTheater on January 12 and runs through January 28
Honky Tonk Angels runs at Theo Ubique's No Exit Cafe through January 29

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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