Michael Shannon Shines Bright in the Dark Tale ‘Turret’ From A Red Orchid Theatre: Review

Michael Shannon and Travis A. Knight in “Turret.” (Courtesy of Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos)Michael Shannon and Travis A. Knight in “Turret.” (Courtesy of Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos)

In the world premiere play “Turret,” humans dwell at the bottom of the food chain, and their days at the top are a distant memory.

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A wall of sound rumbles through the theater as red strobes flash. Lights fade up on a young man running on a treadmill that looks like a giant sci-fi hamster wheel.

The runner is Rabbit, and he’s joined by a man named Green, played by acclaimed actor (and two-time Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon. Green is a tough, inscrutable taskmaster in coveralls who frequently challenges his housemate. They live together in an underground bunker. Outside, an ominous world lurks.

The men face isolation while they wait for reinforcements that might not exist. They are shackled to the past even as they try to survive in the present. Daily to-do lists help fend off boredom and madness.

This isn’t straightforward storytelling with Point A taking a predictable path to Point B. It’s a circular narrative of lives on an endless loop, and there’s an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. Imagine “Groundhog Day” if Samuel Beckett doctored the script and it was directed by George Romero.

Marvelous set design by Grant Sabin visually echoes the concentric circles of the plot. Lighting and sound design pack a powerful punch, too. Doo-wop songs play with a hint of reverb, giving them a ghostly quality. These are familiar tunes in an unfamiliar setting, a world where music is no longer being made — except on one woefully out-of-tune upright piano.

Thankfully dark humor and bits of levity hang over this unforgiving place. The men contemplate pain and suffering in animals vs. humans, and it’s actually funny and enlightening. They live in an environment where “What am I?” and “What are you?” are questions to ponder with a sense of uneasy laughter.

Lawrence Grimm, Michael Shannon and Travis A. Knight in “Turret.” (Courtesy of Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos)Lawrence Grimm, Michael Shannon and Travis A. Knight in “Turret.” (Courtesy of Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos)

“Turret” is a puzzling paradox. It’s high-tech and low-tech and primitive — there are references to tarot cards, runes and an altar that holds a sacrificed animal. Outside “the air is poison,” and the survivors are wary of the “wet season” in a land where even squirrels have become dangerous.

The excellent cast of three are all members of A Red Orchid Theatre. Travis Knight is endearing — and gets a serious aerobic workout — as Rabbit, and Lawrence Grimm takes a brilliant turn in Act Two. Shannon delivers a multi-layered intensity that brings to mind some of the great roles inhabited by Jack Nicholson. He’s that potent.

The actors aren’t the only stars at A Red Orchid. “Turret” playwright and director Levi Holloway is another ensemble member who is a creative force. His creepy play “Grey House” won a Jeff Award for in 2020 for Best New Work, and the show transferred to Broadway last year with Laurie Metcalf. Next he is adapting — get this — a stage adaptation of the horror franchise “Paranormal Activity.”

Holloway wrote “Turret” during the pandemic between the death of his father and the birth of his son, and there is a strong acknowledgment in the show of recognizing what came before us and who or what is around the bend. It’s a meditation on human connection and masculinity and father-son relations. And cribbage and whiskey. It’s a lot of things all at once.

And, although there are elements of horror and science fiction, this isn’t a haunted house show or a space opera. It’s not about outer space but inner space, and how what’s scary inside can be more frightening than the wolf outside the door.

Note: The show is onstage at the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park — and not the Old Town home of A Red Orchid Theatre. “Turret” plays through June 22.

Michael Shannon, Travis A. Knight and Lawrence Grimm in “Turret.” (Courtesy of Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos)Michael Shannon, Travis A. Knight and Lawrence Grimm in “Turret.” (Courtesy of Fadeout Media and Jesus Santos)


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