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Red Handed Otter

The theater A Red Orchid embraces human and animal instincts in Ethan Lipton's disconcerting comedy.

Mierka Girten, Bob Kruse, Luce Metrius, Ashley Neal, and Guy Van Swearingen in Red Handed Otter, directed by Dado, at A Red Orchid Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Maybe you're a cat person. Maybe you're a dog person. Maybe, like one of the odd yet eminently relatable souls populating Ethan Lipton's dark and quirky comedy Red Handed Otter, you are a hermit crab person. In the end it doesn't matter – all relationships with pets end in the sort of universal heartbreak that anyone who has loved and lost understands. The nonhuman creatures we lavish our affections on die or run away or get eaten by somebody higher on the food chain. Directed by Dado for its Chicago premiere, Red Handed Otter is a simultaneously grim and hilarious exploration of the trauma that comes with the loss of a beloved pet, be it a scuttling crustacean or a diffident feline.

The 90-minute piece is everything you expect from an A Red Orchid Theatre Company production: A bit bizarre, darkly comic, and filled with characters who evoke empathy even when they travel to the farthest edges on the bell curve of normal human behavior. The company, founded by longtime Chicago firefighter Guy Van Swearingen, is in prime form in Lipton's story about a handful of security guards all distinctly suited for the nocturnal exile of the graveyard shift.

Lipton's drama centers on Paul (Van Swearingen), a man of constant sorrow reeling from the death of his cat, Jennifer. Paul isn't the only one living in a perpetual haze of moroseness. Estelle (Mierka Girten) has a perky façade, but the more you see of her, the clearer it becomes that something's off-kilter with this woman. Even characters who cling to each other in this world of artificial light and glowing security monitors are planets unto themselves.

Randy (Bob Kruse) and Angela (Ashley Neal) may be a couple, but they're each in their own orbit, doomed to adjacent circles that will never merge. Donald (Luce Metrius) is outwardly cheerful, but one suspects that in any prolonged social situation he'd freeze up like a deer in the headlights. Lipton's plot is minimal: There's the death of Jennifer, a bit of a romantic triangle, a horribly unsuccessful office party and a lot of vaguely creepy and slightly terrifying animal stories. Lipton is more concerned with personality than action. It's a concern that you'll come to share as Red Handed Otter progresses.

Everyone in the cast receives a well-deserved showcase. Van Swearingen doesn't say a word – or even move – for the first, crucial minutes of the piece, and as a result, he figuratively walks off with the scene. His performance throughout evokes a discombobulating mixture of humor and sadness. You can't help but laugh at Paul, while at the same time worrying that he's going to wind up hanging himself from one of the tangled cables and cords connecting the office to the empty corners and crevices of the building he's charged with protecting. Girten is also a lynchpin, a wide-eyed, good-hearted soul at a near complete loss when it comes to responding appropriately to social cues. Kruse delivers a monologue about a crab that is small symphony of poignant craziness. As Donald, Metrius has a twitchy, electric energy, and Neal's Angela is a human exhaust pipe radiating plumes of restless, uneasy dissatisfaction.

Everyone comes together (or rather, fails to) on Jim More's marvelously dingy and detailed set, expertly lit in grays and fluorescents by lighting designer Matt Gawryk and backed by a depressingly uneventful bank of video footage crafted by Seth Henrikson and Oddmachine.

Director Dado pulls off a paradox, crafting a seamless ensemble of misfit loners. As for the titular aquatic mammal, he's an emblem of connection and estrangement. It doesn't matter if you're among those whose significant other will always have more than two legs and an inability to talk. Red Handed Otter will disturb and compel you. You'll feel for these folks, and you'll ardently hope that Jennifer and Paul find some measure of peace.

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