Nothing Without a Company continues its mission of creating site-specific theatre with The Soccer Player in the Closet; a comment in the script about the protagonist’s apartment being situated above a flower shop prompted the company to set the show on the second floor of Christy Webber Farm and Garden. It is, admittedly, a very pleasant lobby, with its funky flower pots grouped by color, but take a trip upstairs, and you’ll find yourself in a different world entirely.
Cristiano is depressed. After the loss of a loved one, his life slips from one of relative stability as an internationally-ranked FIFA player to one of relative isolation in his apartment, punctuated by occasional visits from his cousin, landlady, ladylandy’s teenage brother Cobi, and would-be love interest Bastian. When Cristiano leaves the apartment for good, however, cousin Milena and landlady Leona are tasked with clearing all the bad juju out of the space to make it suitable for sale, and the task proves to be much more difficult than they planned as the story weaves between the present moment and the events that led to it.
Possibly my favorite element of the storytelling is mostly left out of the show’s promotional materials, which is the play’s use of magic. It’s magic that aspiring bruja Leona learns from YouTube, sure, but it’s magic that has a very real effect on Milena and on the story, with the intense, borderline horror-story ending serving as the play’s strongest scene. All the actors onstage are at their best during that scene, as a spell that spirals out of hand holds everyone’s fate in the balance. I came in expecting a realistic drama, but the reality of the play was so much better, and I want to sell you, if no one else has yet, on the supernatural aspects of the storytelling, which are magnificent.
The play grapples with identity: in addition to depressed, Cristiano is Latino, gay, and mostly in the closet, aspects of himself that only complicate his already-heavy emotional baggage. Bits of Spanish and Portuguese are littered throughout, with the highlight being Leona impersonating Cobi over a headset and, when told by her FIFA opponent that her swearing in Spanish is “hot,” proceeds to elaborately curse him out in Spanish to his unknowing erotic delight.
This show fully displays the truth that there is no shortage of talented actors of color in Chicago and anyone who claims they can’t find talent that isn’t white isn’t looking very hard. Rolando Serrano captures beautifully Cristiano’s deep pain, his sly sense of humor, his desperation for human connection, and ultimately his rage at the world that has wronged him with nuance and lots of heart. Viviana Uribe embodies fully the conflict Milena feels as she struggles with her obligations to her family, her cousin, and herself. And Amelia Bethel is just delightful as Leona, offering most of the play’s occasional comic relief, as well as bringing an indominability to Leona that makes her more intense choices believable.
Lighting design by Benjamin Hampikian is essential to creating the world of the play and the often-eerie atmosphere of the apartment. So too does a sparse but effective set by Xavier Lagunas and costumes by Satoe Schechner, my favorite of which were the sometimes absurd getups Leona dons in her role as bruja.
I can say this much, and it’s not something I can often say: this play is unlike anything else I’ve seen. Playwright Ryan Oliveira has a unique voice worth listening to. With the strong talent and excellent design work Nothing Without a Company has brought to this script, the end result is a story that will surprise as much as move you.
Location: The second floor loft of Christy Webber Farm and Garden, 2833 W. Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60612
Dates: February 14th to March 17th, 2019
Times: Thursday to Sunday, 7 – 9pm
Tickets: Tickets are priced between $12.50 – 30, and are now available at The Nothing Without a Company website.
All photos by Matthew Gregory Hollis.