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August 1, 2012

‘The Vortex’ Is A Modern Masterwork


‘The Vortex’ Is A Modern Masterwork
It is said that great works of art become more relevant with time. That is certainly the case with great writing and great theater. ‘The Vortex' is such a work. Noel Coward's drama sky-rocketed the young actor/playwright to fame in 1924 and forever changed the politically correct nature of the art form.

The Vortex is Dead Writer's Collective's inaugural outing and if this production is any glimpse into the voracity of this new theatre group, Chicago audiences will be in for some great classically produced theater. Director Jim Schneider has meticulously gone over every detail and surrounded himself with an amazing cast and crew.

‘The Vortex’ Is A Modern Masterwork
The story focuses on the Lancaster family, which is one of privilege. The action takes place in various rooms of their mansion where we are introduced to myriad of characters who pop in and out to show us that no matter the riches, underlying emotional torment manifests itself the same. Whether it is facing the fact the one is aging or growing-up feeling unloved or unsure of one's sexuality, The Votex shows us the reckoning of a societal façade.

Florence Lancaster (Bonnie Hilton) is the matriarch with delusions that she remains the gorgeous ingénue of twenty years ago. Her emotional disconnect manifests by cheating on her adoring husband with men half her age. Her son Nicky, originally played by Noel Coward himself, is a product of his upbringing has turned to cocaine to grabble with his latent sexuality.

To round out the dysfunction we have Helen (Teri Schnaubelt), who brings some lucidness to forefront ; Clara (Betsy Pennington) who somehow is under the belief that the world circles around her; Pauncefort (Rob Cramer), who is as closeted as Liberace; and Florence's lover du jour Tom (Danny Pancrantz), who reunites with his old flame Bunty (Skye Shrum) when Nicky brings her home to introduce her as his "fiancé". Let the games begin!!

The Vortex is told here in three acts (I saw a production in London several years ago told in two) which allows time for the set changes; and what glorious sets they are. Designer Edward Matthew Walter built a quasi-deco set with gilded mirrors, white lacquer baby grand pianos, swan beds and Biedermier like furniture. It is a feast for the eyes as are Elizabeth Wislar's costumes which fit each company member as if it were custom made couture.

At its core, The Vortex is the tale of a son's desperate need to feel loved and accepted by his mother. To this end Kaelan Strouse gives a tour de force performance as the chemically dependant Nicky. Mr. Stouse's complicated and witty performance is always a hair trigger away from exploding which keeps the audience brilliantly on edge. As each Act progresses, Nicky's nerves are tested as he tests everyone else's. It is not until what he feels is his mother's ultimate betrayal that Nicky emotionally collapses, reminiscent of a child throwing a temper tantrum. Mr. Strouse and Ms. Hilton dominant Act III as mother and son attempt to face their own demons by facing the family carnage of their actions.

It is no secret that these problems cut all close to home for Mr. Coward himself and his pain in Nicky's dialogue is palpable. More then that, The Vortex proves the relevancy of these issues (coming out, addiction, the skewed values of the wealthy, age discrimination and self worth) have become more prevalent in our culture now then ever before. Welcome Dead Writer's Collective for bringing us a masterpiece!

Noel Coward's The Vortex runs through August 26th at The Greenhouse Theatre Complex, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at, or 773.404.7336,

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