COLD TOWN/HOTLINE review- A Chicago Holiday Story at Raven Theatre

Jonah Kaufman, Caroline Chu and Jeanne T. Arrigo in the world premiere of COLD TOWN/HOTLINE: A Chicago Holiday Story, written and directed by Eli Newell, at Raven Theatre Company, Chicago; photo by Michael Brosilow

Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago, is currently presenting the world premiere of COLD TOWN/HOTLINE: A Chicago Holiday Story, written and directed by Eli Newell, through December 22, 2019.

The cast includes Jeanne T. Arrigo, Caroline Chu, Dennis Garcia, Jonah Kaufman, Sam Linda and Robin Margolis. Each adult actor portrays a flawed and insecure individual seeking to perform some form of meaningful act. The child actor, Jonah Kaufman, is cast as their curiously unsmiling Guest.

Robin Margolis, Jeanne T. Arrigo, Sam Linda, and Caroline Chu in COLDTOWN/HOTLINE: A Chicago Holiday Story, at Raven Theatre Company

The story does a disconcerting about-face halfway through. It begins as a somewhat interesting character study of 5 volunteers at a holiday hotline and their various efforts to express their personal ideas about how to answer calls while under the thumb of the control-freak who put together the haphazard little program. It segues into an unabashedly saccharine scenario after a young boy enters the hotline room. Once he takes over, all pretense that the adults are- well- adults, is given over, and he controls the action as a prodigy/instructor on the meaning of life, inducing a childish camaraderie among the adults, with whom he then functions as playmate and ringleader.

The idea of 5 completely untrained and psychologically clueless adults answering a hotline is scary enough. These 5 are so self-satisfied, so bent on competing with each other as if the numbers of calls they take were a contest that the premise of a helping lifeline is lost in the forced self-conscious expressions. And not to put too fine a point on it, the fact that the child is Jewish (oh, how perfectly relevant in our P.C. culture), and they let him completely take over and become the adult would be acceptable in a horror story but is, finally, awful in a psychological morality play. 

However, the fact that this IS a Yuletide story actually suspends the usual critical faculties of audience members (and reviewers) and transforms the unlikely series of events into an appropriate holiday entertainment; on “press night”, the ensemble gained a moderately sizable ovation. And there’s an important reason for this: a very large number of myths and legends have been built around the winter solstice celebrations around the world and many of them include stories that veer between fantasy and monstrous terror. 

Dennis Garcia and Jonah Kaufman in COLDTOWN/HOTLINE, A Chicago Holiday Story

But the Christmas stories in this country are rife with life-affirming miracles, angels and happy endings. Very few families can live up to the expectations placed upon them by these fantasies, and the disappointments that follow can bring heartbreak and disillusionment. It is in the hearts and minds of children that we expect innocence to flourish and be protected, and it is the birth of a very special Child that the holiday is all about. If people can only believe in these values, perhaps the symbolic child can redeem us all.

Thanks to the production team including Milo Bue (scenic design), Gianna Charron (costume design), Seth Torres (lighting design), Eric Backus (sound design), Larkin Sackett (dramaturg), Lynn Baber (casting director), Cole von Glahn (artistic producer), Harley Kirchhoff (assistant director), Nick Peebles (technical director), Liz Gomez (master electrician), Megan Gray (stage manager) and Michelle Housh (assistant stage manager).

Tickets are currently available at raventheatre.com or by calling (773) 338-2177. 

All photos by Michael Brosilow.

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