Good things sometimes do come in small packages. A case in point: the famously tiny theater space that is The Side Project's Rogers Park home, where two world-premiere dramas are currently running in repertory. They both examine some big themes and feature some exceptionally talented actors and thought-provoking stories. Both plays, exploring themes of power and the fine line between love and abuse, aren't unblemished but have much to recommend them.
"Perfect" tells the story of Natalie, a smart high school senior who spends her after-school time caring for Robert, a thirty-seven-year-old autistic man. Through a series of short scenes we watch Natalie grow to care for Robert but she unexpectedly crosses the line from caregiver to lover. This proves to be only the beginning of the dilemma.
Madeline Long is very natural as teenaged Natalie, playing her as intelligent, sweet but appropriately confused when events spiral out of control in her life. Will Schutz is magnificent as Robert and Thomas Whittington and Eva Gil provide top-notch, honest portrayals of Natalie's high school friends, both of whom become unwittingly entangled in her dilemma. The play is haunting and disturbing, but it sometimes falters under a ridiculous subplot involving the adult characters' infidelity and S&M games.
"Slipping," the better-written of the two plays, is the poignant story of Eli, a gay teenager trying to start a new life in Iowa with his mother following the death of his father, a breakup with his abusive ex-lover and a new relationship developing with a shy schoolmate. Love emerges in this play, sometimes in the form of angry, emotional confrontations, sometimes as impulsive sexual acts, but often resulting in loneliness, confusion and self-mutilation. Be warned, there is full frontal nudity and explicit language that might offend the more sensitive viewer but is appropriate to the story.
The small cast is uniformly splendid, with Nate Santana honest and heartbreaking as Eli, so desperate to be loved but carrying a huge chip on his shoulder to mask his battle scars. As Eli's classmate and new friend, Daniel Caffrey is both naive and touching, full of questions and a need to be loved. Rose Buckner skillfully and subtly plays Eli's mother as a woman who tries but never fully connects with her gay son. And Adrian Gonzalez is a confused and abusive ex-lover who can't decide on which side of the fence he wants to play.
Both plays portray kids trying to survive in environments that lack strong, positive adult role models. Both dramas are peopled with vulnerable characters of all ages in need of love, respect and friendship. And despite the sometimes effective, often aggravating use of short blackout scenes that limit the audience's full connection at times, these two plays remain haunting portraits of today's youth and are certainly worth a look.