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THEATER REVIEW Meet Juan(ito) Doe
by Liz Baudler

Playwrights: Ricardo Gamboa, Ana Velazquez

At: The Storyfront, 4346 S. Ashland Ave. Tickets: Free, or pay what you can at the door. Runs through: Nov. 10

Some of the most incredible stories in Meet Juan( ito ) Doe—Free Street Theater's ( FST's ) latest production—are told without words.

Read more story below....

They all happen in a space so small that you might have to tuck in your knees as the five-person cast gyrates right in front of you. The aisle between the banks of opposing chairs and one giant Frankensteined couch becomes a crowded bus, a catwalk, a family dinner table. Awarded a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation 10 months ago, co-directors Ricardo Gamboa and Ana Velazquez set out to collect stories from Chicago's Mexican-American community and create a one-of-a-kind work that testifies to the spectrum of experiences of neighborhood, age and sexuality.

Any Free Street production is sure to have an incredibly visually interesting set ( Gamboa's last FST play, Space Age, prominently starred a bathtub ) and this one is no exception. And this is not at the usual FST space: Instead, a Back of the Yards family donated its late father's storefront to be built and used as the play's set. Now known as the Storyfront, the space comes across as part Mexican living room, part dive bar and all wonderland of cultural touchstones, with a disco ball in the bathroom. It's super-small—in fact, don't try to use the bathroom during the show, as it's part of the set—and it's crammed with as many chairs as can fit to accommodate Meet Juan( ito ) Doe's sold-out, extended run.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the space, the cast is nearly constantly in motion. The less verbal parts of the show are so stunning and indelible, it can occasionally feel like the monologues halt that progress, but this is where the motion is given context and slows into the next revelation.

Each actor gets a monologue—one of the only times motion stops—and, in them, genuine reality pierces the often dreamlike nonverbality ( to be clear: The dream is occasionally a stark, violent nightmare ). The most compelling come from the production's women: Keren Diaz De Leon plays a super-high young woman regretting how her family has drifted over time, and storyteller Lily Be cross-playing as a gangbanger thinking about his childhood. Their energies contrast: Diaz De Leon is bubbly and wistful and Be is bristly and somber, but something went wrong somewhere in the past and both of them want to know where—creating a resonant, relatable emotional core.

Gamboa and Velazquez's piece celebrates the possibility and humanity of a community, and ends on a note of uncertainty about its future, as gentrification grips places like Pilsen. But it's work like this that helps create the future of community. And, for a white audience, Meet Juan( ito ) Doe is not so much an appreciation or an education about the mythical other: It's a community telling you who they are—and we should listen.

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