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Theater Review:

Serendipity Theatre Company’s "THE DAY MAGGIE BLEW OFF HER HEAD" at Victory Gardens Theater


"The Day Maggie Blew Off Her Head" does not exactly sound like an uplifting title for a play. But Amy Bridges’ blistering dark comedy, receiving its world premiere by Serendipity Theatre Company in Victory Gardens’ upstairs studio space, is one of the most astute and ultimately optimistic assessments of the human condition to explode on a Chicago stage in quite some time.

My main concern is that the disturbing title will turn off prospective audiences, who won’t have the chance to experience Bridges’ pointed insights and stingingly perceptive sense of humor. Her play -- which received the 1997 Edward Albee Play Lab Award -- tracks in reverse the life of a young overweight woman named Maggie who must "unwind" her earthly life (while working out on an exercise machine/truth extractor) to jurists about to determine her eternal life sentence. Maggie, an ordinary and familiar figure, has just committed suicide – her answer to a lifetime of soured expectations and being told she’s a failure.

Bridges, however, refuses to wallow in the graphic and depressing nature of Maggie’s life and death. Instead she very lucidly examines all those ridiculous familial and societal rituals that drive Maggie toward her horrifying destiny. Although the play could be tightened and the opening "heaven" scene less fussily written, Bridges does manage to turn a potentially whiny story into a fortifying and refreshing embodiment of the "Carpe Diem" theme. The new spin is unexpectedly tied to Kentucky Fried Chicken in a brilliant conclusion that encapsulates the uninhibited joy of living in the moment.

The playwright also takes Maggie’s suffering very seriously and doesn’t underplay her character’s flaws or cast judgment. Each character, no matter how unsavory or twisted, is fully drawn and shown from various revelatory perspectives.

Director Ross Shirley crafts a splendidly heartfelt and heartbreaking production, which unearths a profound humor beneath the play’s quirky structure and intricate metaphors. Most of the actors play wildly divergent multiple roles – all of whom impart a wry and bittersweet meaning to the story. Wisely, no one takes the wacky for wackiness’ sake route. The cast is committed to every out-of-left-field role, particularly Tracie Louise Sellers, whose nervously repressed interpretation of an abused woman in a "Waist Watchers" group will make any viewer want to reach out and take away her buried, misunderstood pain.

Heather MacDermott’s measured and decidedly unheroic Maggie grounds this production. Her portrayal is so touching and believable because she never tries to embellish Maggie with an excessively tortured sense of insignificance. Her ordinariness – and acceptance of that ordinariness -- makes her death so shockingly operatic.

And when she finally comes out of the coma of a life filled with over-rated expectations, MacDermott’s Maggie achieves the penultimate victory: She’s defeated the continuum of mediocrity and dysfunction forged from the earliest conversations around the dinner table, to the brutal humiliations of school and puberty, to the superficial values of the Miss America pageant, to people who get married and start families long before they’ve had a chance to come to terms with their own emotional issues.

As Maggie’s insensitive husband Jim, Mike Thornton delivers one of the most honest and harrowing monologues in the show – displaying the hurt behind his character’s thuggish behavior. Other outstanding performers include Allison Bills, Lauren Pesca, Meredith Siemsen, Jeremy Zieman and Michael Bertrando.

The entire design team further advances the playwright’s surreal yet harshly realistic world view through hard-hitting videos, sound, sets, lights and costumes. "Maggie" epitomizes the drive, daring and commitment of small off-Loop Chicago theater.

Serendipity Theatre Company’s production of "The Day Maggie Blew Off Her Head" runs through August 26 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $15. Call 773-871-3000.

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