Borealis Review – A Grim Workplace Comedy

Unable to convince her brother to leave the corporate trajectory he’s on, Cozbi sets out alone to create an adventure-filled life. Tia Pinson as Cozbi.
Office worker drones welcome Cozbi as a new member of their team. Paige Hoffman as Langley, Johnny Arena as Parsons, and Tia Pinson as Cozbi.

Everyone hates their job sometimes. Who among us, at one point or another, hasn’t complained about a boss, a coworker, or an irritating customer? Most of us, though, don’t work on an oil rig in the far Northern reaches of Alaska. And most of us haven’t maybe-possibly-probably been kidnapped by the evil corporate conglomeration that runs that oil rig.

With the dock workers distracted by their own bickering, Cozbi gets by them with her useful book intact. Tia Pinson as Cozbi.

But that’s the case for one of the characters of Borealis, written by Bennett Fisher, currently in production by the House Theatre of Chicago and directed by Monty Cole. The protagonist, Cozbi, embarks on a dangerous quest to rescue her brother Absalom after he doesn’t return home from work for several months. Combining the fantastical with the absurd, the landscape Cozbi fights through is fraught with obstacles, including very real monsters and a hurricane/blizzard/“blizzicane” that threatens to destroy her brother’s rig—and maybe his life.

Cozbi ventures deeper into the maze of the corporate HQ, confronting Kemp in HR for her brother’s file. Ben Hertel center as Kemp, with Paige Hoffman and Johnny Arena puppeteering.

This is a play that’s hard to classify, probably because of how it embraces contradiction. The play is epic: it follows the arc of a hero’s journey, features larger-than-life villains, spans miles and miles of arctic wilderness in its setting. But it’s also small: excepting the opening scene, it takes place over the course of one day; there’s a cast of just seven; and the space it’s performed in is intimate, the set and seating reducing the Chopin Theatre’s upstage space to even smaller than usual and limiting the playing space to essentially four intersecting hallways. The play is fantastical: its characters spout extra arms, wings, tails, and comically overblown caffeine and cell phone addictions. The play is realistic: at its core is a single, personal human relationship.

Former oil rig worker, Titus, gives Cozbi a “book of immense power” so she can speak the corporate lingo in the oil company town. Ben Hertel as Titus and Tia Pinson as Cozbi.

The play features raw, emotional movement sequences, as well as dialogue that at times borders on poetic and at times makes repeated use of the phrase “turd-licker.” The play is funny: glib portmanteaus like “blizzicane” or “cronamufferoon” (croissant, cake, muffin, macaroon) produce giggles, while Krosby’s hurling of a mishmash of corporate gobbledygook at her opponents like she’s banishing a demon provokes uproarious laughter. The play is also incredibly dark: lives are at stake, and so are human souls. Not everyone makes it out intact.

After trekking out into the Blizzicane, Cozbi is rescued and returned to HQ, only to be confronted by Burke, the Supervisor. Tia Pinson as Cozbi and McKenzie Chinn as Burke.

For all its darkness, though, Borealis, like Cozbi, maintains a thread of hope: that somewhere out in the world, there is something better than a life spent in servitude to a company that doesn’t give a damn about its employees, only its profits.

The most fascinating and haunting scene in the show is at the top of the second act. Here we meet the dreaded Supervisor Burke, performed superbly by McKenzie Chinn, who matches off against Cozbi in a battle of ideology that turns into a literal battle. Burke is the villain who makes the most compelling case for a life spent working for a corporation, and it is her worldview that offers the most tempting opportunity for Cozbi to go back on her mission. Cozbi is tough as nails, though, a quality that makes for an excellent, if not extremely nuanced heroine.

Abbott coaches Cozbi on how to get by in the office complex. Karissa Murrell Myers as Abbott.

Borealis is a strange play, but strange in a unique and thought-provoking way. It presents us with a funhouse mirror reflection of office work and asks us in a very straightforward way if what we give up for our jobs is worth it. You’ll want to tag along with Cozbi on her journey; it’s a worthwhile ride.

 

Ticket Information

Location: Chopin Theatre’s Upstairs Theater, 1543 W. Division St.

Dates: August 30 – October 21, 2018

Times: Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. (September 23 and October 7) or 7 p.m. (September 9, September 16, September 23, October 14 and October 21).

Tickets: $30-$50. $20 same-day tickets for students and industry professionals are available for all dates, seats permitting. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the House Theatre website or call 773.769.3832.

 

All photos by Michael Brosilow.

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