By Fred Cummings

From the Autumn 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

For classic film noir enthusiasts, the term “gaslighting” wells up a wave of emotions from fear to confusion to hope to resilience, all spanning from the 1944 cult classic film starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton (and the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton upon which it was based). Gaslight told the story of a calculating husband who sets out on a plan to slowly manipulate his wife into believing she is going insane. Through isolation and deception, he wages a Machiavellian battle for control of her mind to ensure she mistrusts her own instincts and her own senses – even doubting whether she is witnessing a gaslight dim and brighten for no apparent reason.

The emotions explored in this work run the gamut of experience when one considers the self, self determination and what is real and what is not.

The emotions traversed in this work serve as the foundation for the hit 2011 Lucky Plush dance production that explores its themes. The Better Half will be remounted this fall in the Chicago dance company’s second performance on Steppenwolf Theatre’s eclectic LookOut series at the theater’s home in Lincoln Park. Originally funded through an innovative Kickstarter campaign, The Better Half was hailed upon its premiere as “a piece of tremendous humor, humanity, and...smartness" by Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) and named among their Top 5 of "2011's Funniest Shows." The fluid and engaging work represents the first collaborative product of Lucky Plush founder Julia Rhoads and Leslie Danzig, formerly of 500 Clown. The work, which went on to tour 10 U.S. cities, serves a thoughtful and poetic rendering of themes from the noir classic that playfully explores the claustrophobia, escapist tendencies and resilience experienced in domestic relationships, all in a dance-theater language full of spontaneity and contemporary resonance.

Rather than adhering strictly to the story’s original narrative, layers of fiction and reality clash in The Better Half revealing the elusive boundaries between self and character, actual and scripted relationships and life versus borrowed plotlines. The underlying effect is dactylic, lyrical and derivative of sentiments explored in the film as a function of what Rhoads calls sometimes suffocating intimacy of contemporary relationships.

​The Better Half features 5 performers (including Julia Rhoads), each with roles imposed upon them from the Gaslight plot. As the plot unfolds, they begin to grapple with the identities they’ve been assigned, some with greater success than others. From there, origin themes begin to collapse as performers struggle with the narrative roles they’ve been assigned. Eventually, a new overarching story emerges, one which evolves at a breakneck pace with disjointed focus on stage right before our eyes. The impact of this evolution on the performers themselves is striking. And as Rhoads points out, this gets to the heart of the underlying statement The Better Half makes on contemporary relationships. “This part of the show bypasses rational logic,” she explained. “And it creates the visceral experience of how playing multiple roles in one’s life can feel, and how arbitrary any single identity can feel.”

As every life incorporates multiple roles and “identities,” self becomes more and more fragmented with every new struggle to manage the stifling and confining aspects of relationships.

The Better Half offers a clever cultivation of the emotions that result and offers audiences a way to engage them as performers' roles evolve and flesh them out on stage.

While the approach sounds terribly improvisational, the choreography is heavily structured and as Rhoads conveyed, “at times meticulously crafted and at times intentionally exhausting.” She explained that the dance component of The Better Half functions as a “’live’ container for the emotional experiences of the characters. It draws from pedestrian action, gesture and physical comedy, and then grows these forms into complex, sophisticated movement sequences, which is signature of (Lucky Plush Productions).”

That signature blend of theater, dance and other idioms extraneous to traditional choreography has created a reputation for artistic nuance and theatrical excellence that has taken the company to greater and greater heights in the international cultural landscape.

​Since its founding in 2000, Lucky Plush has crafted 30 original dance-theater works. In addition to performing in the Windy City, the company has presented in more than 55 US cities, and has formed international partnerships that span from New Zealand to Cuba. Commissions include works for the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts (VT) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, among others.

Lucky Plush Productions is the first and only dance company to receive the prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, a recognition of the company’s massive creative output and its impact. Other awards include creation, residency, and touring awards from National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project and National Performance Network.

The revival of The Better Half brings Lucky Plush back to Steppenwolf Theatre’s eclectic LookOut series. In November 2017, the company debuted at the venue with a well-attended three-week run of Rooming House. The company went on to premiere that work at New York’s Kennedy Center this spring. Their return this fall is fitting not only for the company and the series, but for a work that is so deeply entrenched in the conveyance of emotion. As Rhoads explained, “the intimacy of the space is well-suited to the immediacy of the (The Better Half), allowing audiences to deeply connect with the experiences of the performers onstage.” 

Bending the barriers of dance and theater, the emotional depth and poetry that permeates the work Lucky Plush brings to the stage will likewise go a long way toward that lofty goal.

Lucky Plush Productions will perform The Better Half at Steppenwolf's 1700 Theatre November 2 and 17.

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Lucky Plush Productions in The Better Half (photo by William Frederking).

Poetic License

Julia Rhonda and LuckyPlush Productions brings their heavily lauded, derivative work, The Better Half, to Steppenwolf Theatre’s LookOut series in a fluid evolution of themes explored in the 1944 noir classic, Gaslight.

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