Strawdog’s ‘Damascus’ an unnerving, timely thriller

The situation: two strangers on an impromptu road trip for six hours through the cold, snowy night – what could go wrong?

Evidently, a lot.

What begins as a standard thriller reminiscent of a Jo Nesbo novel or FX’s anthology series Fargo evolves into a truly unnerving, utterly American thriller. What you think will happen in Damascus informs only a shade of what is to come.

Hassan (portrayed with magnetic restraint by Terence Sims) is a shuttle bus driver trapped in a power struggle with his vehicle that has become both home and work. He cannot make the same money he used to because of the rise of ride-sharing services, so he has to occasionally sleep in the backseat. Whatever money he does make goes right back into maintaining the truck. He is caught in a fight that, under present circumstances, he cannot win.

Enter Lloyd, a frantic teenager whose wild, intense demeanor hints that he is running away from something terrible. He offers something Hassan cannot refuse – a week’s worth of pay to drive him to Chicago, he says, to get on a plane to see his sick mother in California. Fate and premonition bring the two together. A voice on the radio asks you to call in for your chance to win. Lloyd, an unstable presence in the backseat, seems to know everything about Lloyd before they even get on the highway. What is the worst that can happen?

The events of Damascus happen almost exclusively in Hassan’s truck (theatrically presented as a cross section designed by Jeff Kmiec), but the surrounding world plays a more critical role. The world in 2018 is one plagued by terror, and terror by design is a random creator of chaos. The world, fundamentally, is an unsafe space.

Understanding that reality can send a person on diametrically different paths. You could, for example, combat terror through advocacy and resistance (the Parkland kids), or you could take a path like Lloyd’s – become a catatonically delusional soldier who believes the only way to save the world is to destroy it, using the vitriol spewed by actor Eleni Pappageorge’s rotating cast of barely-closeted bigots as motive.

Despite being named after the capital of Syria, Damascus seems concerned specifically with the ways in which justice and terror warp the American consciousness. America, as an entity and an idea, desires dominance in every realm. America may not lead the world in anything that benefits society, but it has cultivated a lethal force upon the world that has gone unchecked for centuries: violently angry, entitled white men.

The dimensions built upon the white male-ness of Lloyd, and the fact that none of it comes off as melodramatic or painfully on the current moment is an achievement both of actor and Strawdog ensemble member Sam Hubbard and director Cody Estle. Hubbard’s Lloyd is truly terrifying, and Estle deftly guides him and Sims toward a place that feels both realistic and heightened.

Disenfranchised, American white men represent our biggest threat, but they are more than a representation. Their blind sense of superiority has actual consequences. They elected our current President, they shoot up schools and churches, and, in this case, bring the mass bombing tactics of groups like ISIS into the unsuspecting American Midwest.

Lloyd is vulnerable in a different way than the young Americans swayed by ISIS to join their ranks via online chatting. He is capable of extreme violence, but does not know how to handle the aftermath. He sees the way America is failing and is radicalized to action through its indifference, but wants none of the associated notoriety.

He runs away from the scene of the crime with Hassan as his unwitting getaway driver and fall guy, seeing himself as a worthy element within a religion he does not understand. His God complex and self destruction complex wage war within a terrified person with a methodical, slightly sociopathic knowledge of the system and a willingness to frame Hassan, a brown face that fits the assumed perpetrator of the crime, for it all.

As Lloyd unloads his plan on Hassan, it feels as though Lloyd had been studying him from afar – perhaps for his entire life – and evaluating him for this very specific (and in Lloyd’s mind, holy) task. It feels truly unnerving, because it is so real.

I was not expecting to note so many similarities between Strawdog’s Damascus and The Yard’s production of Columbinus, which chronicled how the two Columbine shooters’ distaste for humanity and raging narcissism led to a tragedy and the beginning of the end of students feeling safe at school. Lloyd builds on the lethally angry white male identity refined by the Columbine shooters and all those that came after, and fully weaponizes his white privilege to enact mass casualties, both inside and outside the car he hijacks.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold looked past the direct effect of their actions and toward their future legacy. Lloyd is part of that legacy, and the ubiquitous nature of those like him – in classrooms, workplaces, on the highway next to you – combined with the ability to camouflage and fully assimilate into the larger American zeitgeist is cause for alarm.  

Cheerful dystopia a thin veil to reality in Theater Wit’s ‘Salad’

The title of Sheila Callaghan’s ‘Women Laughing Alone With Salad’ may be initially confusing for those not familiar with the stock photo that launched a thousand memes, with the biggest meme of all central to the production now in its Chicago premiere at Theater Wit. Of all the words in the phrase, the most crucial is ‘alone’.

These women, here portrayed by Echaka Agba, Jennifer Engstrom, and Daniella Pereira, all seek the fable that was promised to them – the Modern and Empowered Women, Able to Do It All. The only catch is that she has to do it alone, fueled by a salad bought out of motivations she doesn’t quite understand, but feel second nature. The girl power here is, at best, hollow to the point of being completely corporate. In the rat race to become the Best Woman, no one wins.

Except maybe the salad.

In the world Callaghan and director Devon De Mayo have constructed, salad is more than just vegetables on top of lettuce. The exact meaning behind the salad is never pinned down, but an exact meaning never feels needed. Even so, the first act feels a little slow, bordering on fatigue – even within the world of a demented word reminiscent of an ad for Secret or Playtex.

Callaghan creates a world of contradictions, and de Mayo fully invests in this vision through exploring the possibilities of a world where women can say what’s truly on their minds. This alternate reality within an alternate reality creates a fracture line through much of the first act, with posturing done by both Guy (Japhet Balaban) and Meredith, Sandy, and Tori – the women who would come to haunt him. Neither party operates with complete honesty with each other, instead pantomiming a slightly depressing Saturday Night Live sketch where the humor is present, but the honesty of the situation is just a little too real. Think something out of Betty Draper’s deepest darkest nightmares, and mix it in with this recent SNL sketch.

This precarious balance between laugh-out-loud humor and brutal honesty is difficult to achieve without taking something crucial away from the other, and it speaks to both Callaghan and de Mayo’s talents that it comes across so smoothly. Despite these efforts, ‘Salad’ has difficulty keeping up with the dizzying images shaping it, inadvertently slowing it down to a sometimes confusing, farcical display of pageantry. The saccharine absurdity of a world where a simple salad is the key to leaving feminine troubles behind presents fascinating moral and interpersonal questions, but where does it all lead to? Is the salad really that good?

Well, by Act 2, the salad is not so much good as it is a churning mix of ennui and existentially toxic masculinity served on the side. The attempt to build something new from the remains of a cataclysmic event brought to mind the third act of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns – another Theater Wit hit that ‘Salad’ may follow in the box office footsteps of with an extension to May 12.

‘Salad’ may posture as a darkly humorous romp through the feminine world, but de Mayo draws the most strength from its realistic undertones. In its second act, we are taken back to the genesis of the stock photo that started it all, now as a centerpiece for a corporate oligarchy barely divorced from actual reality. As the act progresses, the new and terrifying realities the men in suits dream up for their female counterparts reveal themselves as a guise for salad, and more broadly, the photos of women laughing alone with salad or pouring water anywhere but into their mouths that punctuate Arnel Sancianco’s set design and Joseph A. Burke’s projection design.

Fleshing out a world that prizes small-batch, grass-fed, cold brew coffee over the imperfections of humanity could make a production get bogged down in vapid melodrama, but Theater Wit’s rises to the occasion of being something quite extraordinary – it honestly acknowledges the near-impossibility of liberation (for women and men) from the societal binds that neither party fully understands. But without first acknowledging that such a gap in understanding exists, the promise of a Fully Formed and Well Adjusted Human cannot be achieved – even with a magic salad.

First Floor’s ‘Dontrell’ explores the nuances of a Modern Middle Passage

Surviving mentally and physically in the torture chamber of 2018 requires a certain toolbox of skills. Right now, I’ve taken to reading the transcript of Barack Obama’s Farewell Address, partly because it’s overdue at the library and also because I’d like to briefly return to a time where the President presented himself with dignity and spoke in a way where we didn’t have to constantly question his mental competence. When reading a transcript of the speech, you get a real sense of the historical moment shaping it. Applause and the audience chanting “Four more years!” is written into the text, and each interjection of applause tells a story. A piece of otherwise frozen text becomes a living, breathing marker of history. Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, playing now at The Den Theatre through First Floor Theatre, accomplishes a similar feat, while also taking on bigger and more vexing questions.

Director Chika Ike sets an ambitious vision for playwright Nathan Alan Davis’ words, refusing to make First Floor Theatre’s production any one static thing. It shape-shifts between different forms at lightning speed, which not only shows off Ike’s dexterity as an artist, but adds new dimensions to a script already replete with poetic imagery. Bouncing between disseminating realities of blackness with a surrealist lens similar to that on Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, and a journey down the River Styx, guided by an ensemble taking a form of a Greek chorus, marking the rhythms of Dontrell’s journey into his past, present, and future.

Dontrell Jones III (embodied with endearing earnestness by Jalen Gilbert), on the cusp of attending college, is awoken by an ancestral dream and decides it is his destiny to find that ancestor deep in the ocean, lost to the Middle Passage. Using an old-school tape recorder, Dontrell records his travails leading up to his descent, as he calls it, for “future generations.” As the dream begins to permeate itself in real life, the weight of legacy and atonement begins to weigh on Dontrell. A lot of parallels can be drawn between Dontrell and Black Panther, currently crushing it at the box office week after week. It would not even be much of a stretch to view Dontrell as an origin story (minus the murder) for Erik Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan’s Black Panther character who, like Dontrell, is unrelenting in his goals and is willing to self-destruct in order to see them through.

The structure of Dontrell may lend itself to a focus on the title character’s quasi hero’s quest/coming-of-age journey, but Ike focuses much of her energies on crafting the narratives of the women in Dontrell’s life, both in relation to him and apart from him. This energy is well spent, with complexities about the nature of prophecy, legacy, and ancestry getting to be explored in ways that Dontrell could not do alone. Dontrell’s mother in particular, played with searing ferocity by First Floor company member Shariba Rivers, brought to mind the pain and desperation surrounding the murder of Courtlin Arrington – an Alabama high school student gunned down at school to the tune of near silence from the media. The radio silence could come down to a lot of factors – the shooting happening just weeks after the Parkland shooting, general numbness toward these all too frequent events, or the color of Courtlin’s skin – but the lack of closure makes it feel like they were killed all over again to those who are paying attention.

Erika, Dontrell’s swim coach turned something more, circulates around a different central question of Dontrell, and one that is not as easy to pinpoint – does believing unabashedly in spirits and the fates make you crazy? Kayla Raelle Holder navigates the intricacies of such an exploration with uncompromising intensity and an open nerve nature that makes her immediately magnetic. Much of Erika’s character lives in a heightened existence where it is sometimes not easy to immediately see things from her point of view, and it shows both Ike’s and Holder’s skills that Erika’s (and the production as a whole) twists and turns between humor and drama never feels unearned. And for a play that spends a good deal of time in the ethereal plane of the Middle Passage, that is quite an achievement.

The legacy of the Middle Passage hangs over the world of Dontrell in curious ways. The set, designed by Eleanor Khan, is the first signal that we are in a world not entirely our own. Drawings reminiscent of ancient cave paintings cover the walls, and as the action unfolds there is a certain sense that these drawings are telling an ancient story, with new passages being added with every new descent into its realm. The Middle Passage did not go away as much as it took on new and more clandestine forms, and at the heart of this constant transformation is loss – the loss of lineage, loss of knowing the full truth about your history because of forces beyond your control. This is palpable throughout Dontrell, but it does not lead to a feeling of unshakable despair. The body may be annihilated, but the soul and spirit live on. In examining and uncovering the dynamics of the modern Middle Passage, this ensemble of actors experimenting in a nook of the Den Theatre pose the question: what is truly lost in a world where everything is taken from you before you have to chance to grasp it? The question is vexing, but it deserves and demands an answer.

Memes of a Nation


The 2016 election was the first one that I could vote in, and I was fired up and ready to go. Those flames dissipated as I saw the breakdown of decency and the death of truth play out in dramatic fashion. Unsure of how to pop the liberal bubble and counter the disorder surrounding me, I did nothing. As the hateful rhetoric and shameful double standards piled on, I grew disheartened about the future. However, I thought that surely it would all end with the first female President, and not the first Cheeto President? The United States would defy the odds and do something good, right? Right?

Turns out I was wrong.


I spent part of that November night with my Theatre School peers, sharing our personal and artistic responses to the trash fire that had been the past year, and the other part drinking and dissociating in my apartment watching the horror unfold. I didn’t see a single smile the next morning. The night before, we tore up pictures of Trump in what we thought was a cathartic moment. We were just left with the fear. For me, that feeling soon evolved, but I was, and remain, heartbroken.

Unable to face the news or think about the years ahead without feeling a bit queasy, I had to find a different way of coping with the reality of an incoming President Trump.


Memes of the dankest variety were my answer.

The viral factor is key to the overall impact of memes, and in the days after the election, memes were generated in droves. Some conveyed sadness. Others conveyed outrage or anger. The kind that struck me the most, helping to set me on the path to healing, were of former Vice President (and America’s favorite uncle) Joe Biden thinking of all the pranks he could leave for the President-elect when he came to power.


Over 60,000 people have shared that image, allowing its message to be thrown to all corners of the Internet. This gives me what tearing images of Trump to shreds on election night could not – a real sense of release, a release that could not be snatched away from me. Seeing these images and sharing them with others created a community of those who wanted to start to heal and see how to move forward. Being a fan of memes for many years, I was in awe of the new political responsibilities the form was taking on. My artistic and political sides could finally find a connection.

Objectively, the idea of memes holding any kind of political power seems ridiculous. But in thinking about how the game of politics is an ever-evolving beast, the notion makes sense to me. Memes, a product of social media, must evolve alongside the function social networking plays in the election process – transcending the Meme Dark Ages into a Meme Renaissance in which memes eclipse the fact of being funny and begin to help heal and unite a worn-down populace.  


November 8, 2016 was the first time I could vote for a Presidential candidate. It did not turn out the way many of us had hoped. Having my first national election pan out the way it did – not just losing, but losing based on a rigged system of outright hatred, along with a clear contrast in capability between an overqualified woman and an egotistical, maniacal child – was enough to squander any hope. When all seemed lost, I found a strange kind of solidarity in finding and sharing memes that echoed the anguish I felt over a country that seemed to be derailing. Through that community, reconciliation became a possibility on the horizon and every day after that November Tuesday did not seem so dark.

Origin Stories

My life as Quin begins in my friend’s basement, hyped up on Coke Zero and living my best and most embarrassing life. The year is 2009, my haircut is awful, and I have just purchased a digital camera. Great combination! I put down my entire year’s paycheck of $200 and arrived at my friend’s house with the shiny red point-and-shoot that would collect all my memories for the next six years. The vast majority of these photos are mortifying, but I’m glad that I have them. Those pictures are funny in a way that I cannot replicate now. My friends and I didn’t care about our self-image in the ways that we might now. We were just existing in our own embarrassing ways, without regard to outside opinion.

I’m not sure if you’re getting this. Let me break it down with a meme. 388149_2515998495085_177585565_n

Camera: out

Sleepover: lit

Coke Zero: flowin’

I am forcibly removed from my former existence.

‘Quin’ was not so much a nickname I necessarily chose, but that I was given. I don’t remember the exact moment I became Quin. It just sort of happened, a spectacular occurrence in my small world. I imagine that as I was becoming Quin in that basement, I just kind of went with it and thought, “I can dig this.” That’s how a lot of things happen for me – I just go with them. I was never really fond of my actual first name – being mistaken for a Laura, Norah, Noreen got annoying after awhile, and my origin story as told by my Dad was never as cool as that of my siblings, who are triplets and (drumroll please) older than me! What?

Maybe being Lauren wouldn’t be as much of a drag if people would just say and write it down correctly. Even though I like being called Quin and not Lauren, I initially didn’t want teachers calling me Quin. I’m not entirely sure why – Quin felt like more of a nickname back then and not an identity, so it seemed too casual for the formalized interactions between student and teacher that exists in most of my education. This hesitation has led to a lot of confusion throughout my college life, with people asking me repeatedly if I wanted to be called Quin or Lauren. And to that I say, “Lauren? I don’t know her. Call me Quin.”

My switch to Quin on more of a permanent basis started at theatre summer camp, which started just a few weeks after the Great Basement Awakening. There were two Laurens in the group, which is something I don’t encounter as regularly as a Mary or Emily would. This other Lauren always came to camp with wet hair that somehow stayed wet the whole day. There needed to be something to differentiate us during the three weeks of camp, so in that space I became Quin. Later on, I would find out that Lauren dropped out of high school, moved to Alabama with her boyfriend (and then moved back to Illinois), and never seemed to leave her scene phase. So we’re very different people, but have the same original name.

I tried going by my middle name – Noel – which lasted all of twenty minutes. Something about it didn’t feel right. Hopping around from identity to identity felt exhausting. I wanted to know exactly who I was without searching for it. I wanted a self handed to me, no assembly required. Things are never that easy, and in hindsight I’m glad they weren’t. On that humid night in August in my friend’s basement, the identity of Quin was handed to me in bits and pieces. The nuts and bolts were mostly there, knocking into each other with a metallic clang, and the instruction manual had some hastily-written guidelines in a slanting and excited script. My future in this new identity was unknown, but there was some sort of road map to help me along the way. In this new identity, I could find a way to move past the quiet girl who weirdly knew a lot about horses and American Idol and become someone more authentically me – someone who reflected all parts of me, even the parts that were dormant inside me for years.

I’m kind of a pushover, and a lot of who I am now is based on what others have defined for me and infused into my personality. Different personality traits are ignited by different groups of friends, so I’m never really the same person twice. But I’d like to be Quin full time.

Being partially determined by other people isn’t a great thing, but I have grown into having the self-empowerment to take all the parts of myself and make them my own. What used to be me reading social studies books for fun, attempting to cram all the knowledge in the world into my head is now me looking at everything top to bottom to find something in it to take a picture of – seeing the unseen in the seen thing, capturing the forgotten. The Lauren of old is the person who will turn in their essay on time and is super quiet, but the Quin of now will thoroughly roast you via meme, while critically analyzing everything around her in order to turn it into fresh content. While also being pretty quiet, in most circumstances, and (usually) turning in her essay on time.