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Theater Review:

"MATCHES IN THE DARK," Albany Park Theater Project at Eugene Field Park

BY LUCIA MAURO

Albany Park Theater Project (APTP), founded four years ago by Laura Wiley and David Feiner, is an inspiring example of how theater can change people’s lives and reinforce the idea of a united community. This ultra-enthusiastic ensemble of teenagers, who create theater from real-life stories, live in the culturally diverse, working-class neighborhood of Albany Park. Feiner reports that, while the area’s high school has a drop-out rate of 40 percent, more than 95 percent of the teens in APTP stay in school, graduate and go on to college. A number of them have received scholarships.

So the program is obviously having a beneficial effect. And judging by the packed house and committed actors at Program B during the final weekend of "Matches in the Dark" – the troupe’s four-year retrospective – APTP has succeeded in fostering a deep understanding and respect for issues facing urban teens. It’s also encouraging that each dramatized story does not merely harp on the negatives but also offers solutions or at least hope for change.

APTP provides these young artists with a cathartic outlet for their concerns and traumatic experiences. By shaping their stories into performance pieces, they have the rare opportunity to examine them from a creatively liberating perspective. At the May 31 performance, APTP addressed a mistaken gang-related shooting; a non-conformist teenage boy’s experiences in a psychiatric hospital; Tourette’s Syndrome; a young girl’s coming out; and an alcoholic parent. Each piece conveyed a burning honesty.

The company, however, can take its work to a more complex and experimental level. Artists may eventually want to move from their somewhat distant presentational style to wholly integrated and suggestive scene work that presents multiple sides of an issue. They are admirably beginning to tackle multidisciplinary styles (including a dance dream sequence mirroring the many ethnic groups along Lawrence Avenue) that foster metaphoric exploration.

While it’s understandable that the writer-performers (ages 13 to 20) revel in the joy of creative expression, they can edit their work (the performance lasted almost three hours, including a post-show discussion). It’s best to leave the audience with a few blank spaces for personal reflection rather than giving them too much detail.

These critiques aside, APTP’s smart and pliable ensemble truly speaks from the soul. Their stories tap into the essence of the human experience with urgency and humor.

One of the most groundbreaking pieces on the program was "Roll Off My Back" – based on a true story about a young boy’s development of Tourette’s Syndrome told by Michael, Christine and Susan Thrasher. Three actors (Jesus Gonzalez, Lawrence Mangalindan and Miguel Rodriguez) portray the character of William through stylized movement and spoken text, as his mother (Nancy Casas) is torn between compassion and frustration and his sister (Elia Ayala) struggles to reconcile her confounded feelings.

"What If?," based on a true story told by Nancy Casas, is an engaging and witty bi-lingual vignette that parallels a lesbian relationship on a Latino soap opera with a teen’s inability to admit her sexual orientation to her rigidly traditional mother. Jessica Irizarry is particularly graceful and strong as the conflicted teen.

"After Michael," based on a true story told by Irizarry, compellingly explores the repercussions of a gang hit gone awry. A scene in which the dynamic Maggie Popadiak recounts key moments from her friend Michael’s life punctuated by gunshots, reinforces the story’s crushing immediacy.

A non-conformist teen’s experiences in a psychiatric hospital, based on a true story told by David Shaeffer, hovers in a cliched realm and needs to explore more viewpoints; and "On Top of the World," based on a true story told by Jose Diaz, about an alcoholic father who deserts his family, is revelatory but tends to become repetitious. The exhilarating folkloric finale, with the group dancing through a medley of ethnicities, demonstrates APTP’s vibrancy and seemingly endless stamina.

Each playlet was framed by original percussive music performed live by young musicians/vocalists.

The entire ensemble deserves recognition: Richard Aguilar, Jorge Aparicio, Elia Ayala, Jason Ayala, Micah Bezold, Regina Birchwell, Nancy Casas, Jennilee Castro, Elizabeth Cobacho, Kris Cox, Tunika Cuevas, Jesus Gonzalez, Sandi Gutstein, Antonio Hernandez, Jessica Irizarry, Lawrence Mangalindan, Carlos Mendez, Lawrence Munoz, DJ Narvaez, Monique Ortiz, Christina Perez, Maggie Popadiak, Marta Popadiak, Miguel Rodriguez, Lisa Sanchez, Kimseath Sim, Christine Thrasher and Bryan Duy Tran.

During the post-show discussion, one of the audience members – a theater professional – admitted that he was growing jaded with the current state of fairly self-absorbed theater. But he no doubt spoke for everyone when he praised the APTP ensemble for renewing his belief in the life-affirming power of theater.•

Albany Park Theater Project is in residency at Eugene Field Park, 5100 N. Ridgeway, through the Chicago Park District’s Arts Partners in Residence Program. For more information, call 773-866-0875.

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