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June 24, 1998    By CHRIS JONES    Publication:  Chicago Tribune

Attend productions in impoverished storefront playhouses and you won't often see sophisticated sets. Of all the myriad elements of theater, scenic design is the part that swallows up the most money. Where sets are concerned, off-Loop Chicago theaters can be a veritable wasteland. But there have been at least three quite astonishing scenic designs recently that have broken this pervasive rule: namely, "Bent" at the Athenaeum Studio; "Chekov in Yalta" at the Chicago Filmmakers; and, now, the National Pastime Theatre's production of "Thanatos." All three of the low-budget producing companies were different, but the designer was Joey Wade, a talented fellow who deserves attention from larger troupes. In the case of Ron Simonian's disturbing play, "Thanatos," Wade creates a sleazy motel room full of jarring angles and off-kilter levels. Surrounded by piles of garbage, newspaper and urban paraphernalia, Wade's set is so all-encompassing that the space looks like an installation in an art museum. With such an intense visual environment to swallow the audience, the National Pastime production (tautly directed by the single-named actress, Dado), is off to a strong start. And for the most part, the acting echoes the intensity of the set. Simonian's play (which began life in Kansas City and was generally well-received Off-Broadway in the early 1990s) is very much in the "Pulp Fiction" vein of violent contemporary drama. The 80- minute play follows two Red Cross "catastrophe specialists." Talking with Pinteresque comic gravitas, the pair deal with the aftermath of their work -- photographing death and destruction -- each in their own way. Sam (Andrew Rothenberg) parties with women; his partner, Ted (Eric Lumbard) broods. "Thanatos" follows Ted's encounters with various visitors to his motel room, including a bogus Vietnam Vet (Ed Smaron) and a young woman (superbly played by Karen Foley) who expresses sexual pleasure at viewing death. With striking similarities to the novel/film "Crash," Simonian probes human responses to death -- pleasure, fear and existential angst. It's not a play for the faint of heart (and it has its sensationalist aspects), but the dramatic situation has sufficient force to keep one involved for the brief duration. With especially strong acting work from Lumbard, Foley and Smaron, most performers do justice to the play's potent themes. ---------- "Thanatos" When: Through July 31 Where: National Pastime Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway Phone: 773-327-7077

ARTS WATCH. THEATER REVIEW: Dealing With Death As A Fact Of Life: News
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